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The Dark Magi

 

The Dark Magi

By G. S. Monks

Part One

-

The clinker-built whaler lay trapped between the twin worlds of darkling sea and shadow-limned night. His hooded features cast in Gothic, chiselled hues, Ander stood at the tiller and raised his guttering torch in the traditional salute of farewell. In the bottom of the whaler, two bodies wrapped in sheets lay revealed in its grimy yellow penumbra. He took stock of the small contingent assigned the unpleasant task of burial detail. Death was a time for families and shared grief, not for disposal at the hands of near-strangers.

‘Will you not say a final word over them, Sir?’ an oarsmen prompted.

All eyes were upon him, causing him to feel weighted down by the invisible burden of responsibility.

Two young men lie dead at my feet, and I can think of nothing to say . . . where are the words of comfort that should spring unbidden to my lips? Can it be that the manner of their death has tied my tongue?

A voice pierced his reverie like a pronouncement of murder. ‘Why will you not speak? Do you intend to damn us all? Ander . . . Captain . . . you must say something!’

At that, he rediscovered his tongue and addressed the crew. ‘You ask me for fitting words . . . all right, I will speak. Tell me, which words shall I utter? That this fine fellow failed to secure himself, and so lost his footing and fell from the rigging? That the other was crushed in a fool’s bid to secure cargo in rough seas? How shall I say how they died? How shall I say this to their loved ones? Were I to state that these poor souls died well, I would be lying.

‘Tell me: how shall I find fit words that will release them?’

‘Leave it to a cleric,’ one of the less imaginative oarsman grunted, ‘and let us be done with it. It is the role of a cleric to speak fitting words, and to write letters to bereaved kinfolk.’

The men grumbled their disagreement. Ander well understood their reticence. They were superstitious about a night burial and rightly feared attracting the spirits of the Dead. Mixed rain and snow swirled thick about them like a promise of violence; the night-black water lay deep and viscid with cold, and seemed to suck at the whaler as though wishing to swallow it into black oblivion and sea-death.

Ander gave the order, and felt the burden of their apprehension as they shifted the death-heavy corpses over the gunnels. With a sound like a sigh, the weighted bodies sank into the eternal deep. But for several long moments the oarsmen ached after them, their eyes full of the fear that they had incurred a curse.

-

Cold-stiff hands and aching shoulders hauled on the guys tied to the fore and aft cleats of the whaler until it was drawn back on board the ship. As he stepped onto the mist-slick deck, Ander thought about bed and dry clothes . . . but the memory of the fallen sailors dogged him, chided him for seeking comfort when all comfort in this world and the next had been denied them. Was it really possible that they were gone? Had those laughing young men truly done all their living in so short a time?

He focussed his eyes, found that they had been drawn on their own towards land, to the port town of Arseula that lay dark and concealed in pre-winter mist. The place appeared as still and lifeless as a tomb! It was possible that an inn or two in this Northern Udin town was open.

The possibility was enough. Ander found that his spirit and his legs were restless, in need of exercise. He would walk into town and back. If the inns were closed along the way, so be it!

-

His legs aching dully from the long climb up the hill, Ander discovered to his relief that the old roadhouse at the end of town was open. Like many Norlandermen he came to this inn because it was reminiscent of those found in his home in the far north. Its structure was of rough hewn beams and thick planks of oak, its walls of plaster and straw, its ground floor flagged with stone and covered with reed mats, its dim light provided by a central fireplace and by eight massive, round iron chandeliers, which hung from the ceiling beams from iron chains.

Though not in uniform, he still wore the coat of light mail all Norlandermen officers wore beneath their armour made of tiny overlapping rings that shone like silver and made an almost inaudible tinkling noise like breaking shards of ice. His wolf-pelt cape he discarded on a chair to his left. From the waist down he was dressed in heavy leather leggings and hobnailed military boots; hence the matting on the floor. Leather shoes lasted no time at all without hobnails, and conversely, floors, whether of stone or wood, lasted no time at all without matting of some sort.

Ander soon discovered that the roadhouse had been about to close its doors for the night, but had reopened them the moment the sullen skies had opened up, sending dock workers and travellers alike scurrying for shelter, a hot fire, and a stiff drink to rekindle the inner fires.

‘Excuse me, Sir . . . may I sit at your table? All the others are full.’ Seeing his look, she blurted, ‘I don’t intend to stay long: just long enough to find who I’m looking for.’

She was of a little less than average height, her hair bobbed in the way that novice Udin soldiers cut their hair. That she, too, was an off duty soldier was apparent by her dress, and by the arms she bore: a short sword and dagger at her belt. Because of their difference in age, to Ander she seemed very young. He estimated her age at somewhere around eighteen, allowing for the manner in which the Udin naturally appeared younger than they really were. Her features were clear-skinned, and bore the distinctive slightly oriental cast of the Udin; her hair and eyebrows were a peculiar blonde colour that was almost black at the roots, and a rich yellow-gold at the tips. Though well proportioned and comely, there was something naïvely and appealingly guileless about the girl, about her features and her attitude, that Ander instantly liked. Gesturing to the chair in the corner to his right, he said, frowning, having noticed something that didn’t sit right, ‘You’re Udin?’ She nodded, though guardedly. ‘Udin military,’ he added. She reacted by going rigid, not looking at him. ‘Out of uniform. Against Udin military regulations, as I understand them ’

Ex military,’ she enounced, tersely. ‘My companions and I were expelled early this afternoon.’

‘May I ask why?’

She turned to look him in the eye, her expression unreadable, her jaw set in a way that he would later find to be characteristic. ‘There has been a change in requirements regarding the height, size, weight, and physical strength of Udin women serving in the military. We were singled out and summarily dismissed.’

His responding indignance prompted Ander to say, ‘I hope they gave you enough of your pay to get you home again!’

‘There was a competency hearing, prior to our dismissal,’ she said in a hard voice that, though carefully flat, yet belied her emotion. ‘It was decided that since we were not fit to be in Udin’s army, it was therefore deemed unseemly that we should be paid for our incompetence, or provided with transportation back to our homeland.’

‘Are you telling me,’ Ander asked her, unable to accept her words at face value, ‘that you are stranded here, penniless, without the means to return home?’

She huffed in angry exasperation. ‘The six of us are stranded here, penniless as you say, without the means to leave, or to support ourselves, except by ’ she choked off her flow of words and left the thought unsaid. For a fleeting instant, to Ander’s mind came unbidden a vision of a band of female brigands roaming the northern woods, pursued by a host of soldiers bearing torches, hunting dogs running ahead, baying.

At that moment, a server came by bearing a prodigiously large tray filled with earthenware pitchers and flagons. Ander bought a pitcher of the spiced, potent mead sold in these parts, and asked for a pair of clean flagons. The server raised his eyebrow at this, but did as the Norlanderman bade him do with the sort of long suffering air of one who well knows that Northerners are fastidious about cleanliness, but is willing to put up with their strange idiosyncrasies. When the man left, and Ander proceeded to pour the young woman a flagon, she reacted by placing her hand over the top.

‘No, thank you.’

‘You don’t drink?’

‘I do not take charity!’ she bit off, tersely.

Taking the flagon from her and filling it, the northern soldier said, ‘Don’t talk nonsense! It would only be charity if you had asked for it.’ They sat in silence for some time, during which she didn’t touch her drink. Instead, her attention was consumed with watching the occupants of the roadhouse, looking, perhaps, for a familiar face. Ander assumed, and rightly, that she had found one when her gaze locked on to someone, and she let out a hissing gasp of angry surprise. Following the line of her gaze, all he could see was a large group of traders near the fire, a nondescript looking painted harlot sitting in their midst, as drunk as they were, and responding to their drunken ogling and fondling. His young companion was suddenly gone, moving towards this group. He watched, curious to discover the object of her attention. With a curious sinking feeling in the pit of his belly, he watched as she went straight to the painted woman. The table at which she was sitting became uncomfortably silent as the two began speaking in their lilting Udin tongue. After some time, Ander’s young companion looked up, seeking him out, perhaps to see if he had left, he thought. She turned back to her companion, said some words, and then returned to his table. She was deathly pale. After a moment, she picked up the flagon of ale as would a man, and downed it in one long draught. Refilling it for her from the pitcher, he said quietly, ‘Can it be that you know that woman? It does not seem likely.’

His young guest swallowed audibly before answering. ‘Her name . . . her name is Shela. She was one of we six who were dismissed. She has told me that she has no pride left. Tonight, she will sell her body ’

Shocked, he looked at her askance to see that her eyes were full of unshed tears. Thinking only to distract her for the moment, he decided to make introductions. ‘My name is Ander. You have not yet told me your own.’

‘Sir?’ her attention snapped back into the moment. ‘Your pardon! My name is ’ she hesitated, then continued in a subdued voice, as though shamed by making some admission. ‘My name is Irena Eritraea. Irena Eritraea Worren.’

Worren,’ Ander mused, thinking that the name sounded familiar. He soon had it. The Udin identified themselves by first name, Clan and County, respectively. Worren was a rugged, inland County, thickly forested but logged only with great difficulty; poor in resources, but rich in hard working, tough people. In all of Udin, only the women of Worren County girded themselves as soldiers. Without the sole Country of Worren, not only their own people, but those from the southern countries of Otar and Talimar, thought of such women as unwomanly, and disdained those of Worren County as uncultured, ignorant, uncouth, provincial, plain, and undesirable. The truth, however, bore little resemblance to the reality. ‘Then you are from Worren County,’ Ander said in a bemused tone tinged with gentle, humorous irony. ‘That would explain your reticence in telling me your name.’

When he finished speaking, something in his voice prompted her to say, without meeting his eye, ‘I suppose you disapprove of women in the military.’

‘There are a good many women in our military,’ he told her, smiling at her reaction.

‘But ’ she blurted, ‘I have never seen any!’ The inflection of her voice sounded as though she asked a question.

‘No, and you will not,’ he told her, putting on a more serious face, despite the smile at her youthfulness that remained in his eyes. ‘To avoid possible unpleasantness and confrontation, they do not travel on ships that enter ports such as this, where southern attitudes prevail.’

‘My friends and I,’ she said in a rush, ‘could we gain passage on board your ship? We are all 

well  most of us are skilled, and we are all hard working. You wouldn’t have to pay us,’ she

added, hopefully. ‘Just our board and keep is all we would ask ’

Ander put up a hand to forestall her, even as he was struck by a guilty feeling, as though he were fending off responsibility for the young woman’s plight. ‘Think what you are asking! When our ship leaves, it will be returning [i]north[/i], and then we will be changing ships and continuing north, heading out over the ice fields. Arseula is as far south as my people venture. You know nothing about working in or enduring cold weather. You are neither equipped nor dressed for such a venture ’

‘The alternative for such as me,’ Irena said in a tight voice, ‘is to lower myself to what Shela has gone to do. Arseula is a small, isolated town, and unattached women here have but one choice in life  they must either sell themselves, or work somewhere as menial labour, giving that away which they would sell in the bargain, or they must become some man’s concubine. In the end, the result is the same.’

Ander sighed, and to his own surprise found himself juggling the logistics of taking on a number of inexperienced hands. Though her indirect pleas were not aimed at him, personally, still, they struck home with the impact of accusations made of chunks of ice. At last, considering, he allowed, ‘Where are the rest of your friends? Do you know?’ She watched him carefully as he said this, and he was left with the distinct impression that she sensed or hoped that some line within himself had been crossed in her favour.

She blurted, ‘Perhaps at one of the taverns . . . ? I do not know ’

‘Well then, youngster, I suggest you finish your ale. We’ll start with the Cross eyed Gull.’

She looked up at him in surprise. ‘That was one I was trying to find earlier, but I couldn’t find it.’

Ander gave her a look. ‘That doesn’t surprise me. The entrance is off a back alley in the warehouse district. I sincerely hope your friends haven’t gone there. Are they armed, like yourself?’

‘Besides myself, only Kira and T’cha own their own weapons. The others’ were taken back . . . confiscated.’ She suddenly narrowed her scrutiny of Ander, and caught him completely off-guard by asking, ‘Are you an honourable man? Is it true that all Norlandermen men are . . . moral?’

Her words had the effect of splashing cold water on wilted lettuce. Despite the fact that his mind was made up, Ander wasn’t taken with the notion of helping the young woman and her friends. But a lifetime of living up to a deep-rooted moral code has a way of superseding rest, self indulgence, social and moral indolence. Without replying, he finished his ale quickly, and got to his feet. With a curt nod, he said, ‘Come.’

She followed in his wake as though answering the call of a cavalry trumpet.

There was a moment’s awkwardness as they came upon a table of his shipmates, who looked up, speculation in their eyes. It wasn’t until that moment that she fully realised the depth of her imposition. She was about to apologise for the inanity of her request, but a knowing look from Ander before he returned his attention to his men silenced her.

‘Gentlemen! Those of you who are armed will finish quickly and come with me. We are going to search for this young woman’s companions.’ All of the men, it turned out, were armed, not trusting the heavily armed rick rack that frequented such places.

-

As the heavy wooden door thudded closed behind them, sealing away all warmth and laughter and light, they found themselves forging ahead into darkness, stinging sleet mixed with wet snow coating their shoulders and hair with a frozen rheum, their hobnailed boots crunching on the treacherously frozen cobbles. The wind howled in their ears so loudly that they had to shout to make each other heard. One of the men, with a hopeful glance in Ander’s direction, remarked that since they were going to an inn, they could possibly stop for a drink and warm up.

Ander didn’t comment.

-

The warehouse district was situated in the worst possible area for such a journey on such an evening  on a steep knoll of land, now made treacherous with half-frozen slush, with narrow streets that funnelled the wind, and it was a frustratingly convoluted warren, with blind alleys, and one main street which lined the waterfront. From below came the creaking of floating wharfs, the groan of rigging, and ships’ guards riding against the docks with the swells. Beyond, looming into the blackness, reared a dark, heavily forested peninsula, like a giant’s outthrust shoulder deflecting the sea’s fury.

Irena’s companions were not in the Cross eyed Gull. To Ander’s surprise, and despite its proximity to the docks, they found the place to be nearly deserted; only a number of old regulars talked quietly in the dim interior, seated near the fire. That left only the Derelict Toad. The men groaned at that, as did Ander himself, though inwardly. It was all the way back, up and over the top of the hill, a short distance, perhaps half a mile. But half a mile of soaking, stinging sleet, howling wind, wet feet, and crunching, half-frozen slush.

Ander decided on a circuitous route, turning to the right and taking the wide main road used by heavy carts. This road was flagged with stone, rose at the most gradual gradient, and passed the largest buildings along the way. Most of the large mercantile buildings lay along this route, hence its width  carts could pull off the road and unload without obstructing traffic.

-

They were just turning the corner of the top of the first loop, when a faint sound caught their attention. ‘That sounded like Kira’s voice!’ Irena blurted.

‘Did any of you notice which direction it came from?’ Ander queried. Met with silence, he snapped, ‘Spread out in two’s! Return here and recall everyone if and when you find something.’ When Irena looked a question at him as the others left, all twenty eight of them, he said, ‘Someone must remain to maintain the rallying point.’ Until now, exertion had allowed her to withstand the cold, but now that they had stopped she was showing signs of suffering. She wore no headgear, her ears and nose were red, and even in the darkness Ander could tell that her lips were turning blue 

He turned at the sound of running feet. It was Rufus, a tall, burley, red headed fellow. ‘Found ‘em, sir! Four women. Two dozen men. Armed, and drunk.’ He had added the words and drunk meaningly. ‘Conran stayed behind to keep an eye on things.’

Ander nodded curtly and gave three short, trilling whistles- the signal for the group to reform. Within moments a plan was formed, and they had surrounded the house. It was more of a barn, having but a single room, little or no furniture, a small fireplace, and was lighted only by a few candles which burned dimly. The four women were backed into a corner. Two of them, whom Ander assumed to be Kira and T’cha, stood in front with swords drawn. The remaining two women guarded their sides, auxiliary daggers at the ready, doing what they could to avoid being outflanked.

To Ander’s consternation, some of the men were Udin.

‘Irena,’ Ander whispered to her, ‘explain to me what transpires here!’

He heard her swallow reflexively, and at the sight of her fearful, wide-eyed look, found himself struggling with an instinctive, protective feeling towards her.

‘That big man, the one with the black broadsword? That’s V’tan, the weaponsmaster. You see those two in dark brown, over there in the corner? They’re slavers; I don’t know their names, but I know what they want.’

Udin and slavers in the same breath! Something inside Ander curdled and seemed to turn over in his chest. The Udin as a whole were generally well behaved in the presence of the Norlandermen, but some were not to be trusted when backs were turned. They, like slavers under such circumstances, could without warning become intractable, vicious, and unreasoning. The Norlandermen were faced with only two options here: they could walk away, knowing what would happen; or there would be a bloodbath, with the very real possibility that relations between the Udin and the Norlandermani would be marred.

Glowering, Ander chewed curses like gristle. ‘Conran! Rufus! Pick a man each and cover the two windows. Irena, stay out here with Heca. The rest of you, stand ready.’ Ander removed his heavy cape and placed it about Irena’s shaking shoulders.

Though the heavy doors were barred, this was easily remedied by inserting a sword between them, lifting the bar, and kicking them unceremoniously inward. The tormentors surrounding the women were so besotted that they became aware of the Norlandermen only when one of their number noticed the cold draft, turned around, and stopped in mid sentence, yelling, ‘Somebody close the bloody ’

Almost as a man, the Udin turned to face the intruders who had brought the chill, empty night with them. Ander felt his insides tighten involuntarily, for the last man to turn about did so with unhurried, potentially murderous violence in every line of his frame. V’tan was a great, black-bearded giant of a man, towering over everyone present. Ander nodded inwardly to himself as the giant’s eyes sought him out. Here was a man whose main strength lay in identifying and slaying the leaders of others!

The giant approach Ander with a disturbing, almost casual watchfulness, and when he drew near Ander was offended by his breath, which was as offensively rancid as his stinking black bearskin cloak. His speech slurred by drink, he said, ‘Whaddaya want, little man? You got business here?’

‘Let the women leave,’ Ander said in a quiet, clipped tone.

Perhaps exaggerating his drunkenness, V’tan made a show of turning about and considering the four, before turning back to Ander in the same manner. ‘Got nothing to do with you. They’re my crew, an’ I c’n do’s I like.’

‘They are not your crew,’ Ander said evenly. ‘You released them from further service earlier today.’

‘Ya can’t have ‘em,’ V’tan said, staggering slightly, but in a way that made Ander watch his sword arm carefully, rather than cause his any amusement. ‘They b’long to me!’

‘Slavery is illegal,’ Ander responded without rancour, not rising to the bait.

‘So who’re you?’ V’tan jeered. ‘The law?’

This prompted an icy smile from Ander, even as he took note of the mob mentality of V’tan’s soldiers, silently willing his own men to be on their guard. It was in his mind that both he and V’tan knew that Arseula was literally outside the law. Each Udin County had its own minor King or chieftan, and made its own local laws, but Arseula resided in an outlying area that was claimed by Udin, overall, but was part of an outlying territory rather than a County. Each territory existed in a state of legal limbo, what law there was, residing in the nearest person of the highest social or military standing, if and when such a person was available to lend his services as arbiter. Knowing who the highest ranking person in the area was at any given time was, of course, next to impossible. As a result, summary action taken by individuals who assumed themselves to be the highest ranking person available, such as that the Norlandermen were presently witness too, was all too commonplace.

‘You’re drunk, V’tan,’ Ander said, hoping the big man would take this proferred opening and back down, ‘and in violation of your own laws, if not a number of long standing bans and treaties. Release your hostages, or I will place you and your men under arrest, and hand you over to your own authorities.’

At the sound of his own name, V’tan started, belying that his drunkenness was part pretense.

‘How do you know my name? I have never seen you before, and I never forget a name. Or a face.’ The threat in his tone was implicit, calculating. Ander decided that he had been right to watch the big man’s sword arm.

Nodding inwardly at how skilfully the big man vied for the offensive advantage, Ander decided to make him sweat for attempting to assert his authority when he clearly had no business doing so. ‘Certain of your superiors asked me to keep an eye on your behaviour. Had I jurisdiction in this matter, I would arrest you, and summarily hang your two slaver companions! Regardless, I do have the authority to enforce the law, to the extent that I am witness to a crime in the very act of its being committed. You will release your hostages. Now. Or I will act, without mercy, and with extreme prejudice.’

There was no sign of drunkenness in V’tan’s visage now. In one fluid motion, he drew his huge black broadsword, and pronounced, not yelled, ‘Kill the bitches,’ even as he advanced.

The big man couldn’t conceal his surprise at the disciplined manner in which Ander’s men parted, giving the two men room to square off. He was used to wading into the midst of a mêlée, taking advantage of his greater height and reach to hack down preoccupied opponents to the left and right, an act that normally struck fear into his intended target- the opposing leader.

As V’tan checked his approach, fractionally, Ander felt the giant’s scrutiny narrow, with something like suspicion . . .

And then, with unbelievable speed, the attack came!

In that first instant, when sword met sword in a shower of sparks and rang like a pair of steel anvils, Ander knew then that this was the very moment that every other opponent had been cut down; he knew, too, by some elusive cue that couldn’t be expressed in words that for the first time in his life, V’tan tasted doubt.

Though the big man’s men had been holding their own, the doubt of their leader shook them fundamentally. They began crowding closer, looking for any opening with which to backstab Ander, who had recovered himself, and now rained blows on the giant with deadly skill-

Ander turned his head just in time to catch the flat of a blade full across the side of his face. His ears ringing, he found himself half-sitting in a stunned, senseless daze . . .

. . . and stared in wonder as a dream that resembled Irena took up his sword in one hand, a fallen enemy’s blade in the other, and hurled herself at V’tan, spinning like a dervish, a blade-whistling, dancing, silvery blur that grew dim, even as she swam before his eyes in a lunatic pirouette of Death . . .

. . . and then there was nothing.

-

‘By the gods, Ander! Can you hear me?’

He felt slightly nauseous, and sore all over. His right side felt cramped, stiff, and threatened

extreme pain were he to move. He did recognise, however, that he was in the infirmary of the Ice

Queen, and that the surgeon who attended him was none other than Kenastus, the ship’s surgeon.

‘How long have we been under way?’ Ander asked him.

‘For two days, now.’

‘I see. Send Rufus to me.’

‘Rufus is dead,’ Kenastus told him in blunt tones. ‘The slavers killed both him and one other who blocked a window, and made their escape. I am told that the Udin fought like demons.’

‘Is Conran alive?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then send him to me.’

Conran arrived moments later, looking tired and worn. He was a dark, curly haired man, thick of feature, heavy bearded and barrel chested. He and Rufus had been friends for many years.

‘Our losses?’

‘Two,’ Conran muttered. ‘Rufus and Falo. Three wounded, including yourself. The little one, Irena, fought like a hellcat. Just about eviscerated that bastard V’tan; I don’t know how he managed to survive and walk away from wounds like that. Men like him are . . . well . . . inhuman.’

‘Did we manage to get any of theirs?’

‘Nineteen of the bastards,’ he muttered with grim satisfaction. ‘Arrogant sons of whores. They seemed to think ’

‘The wounded,’ Ander prompted, wanting facts, not stories.

‘Ah, well, two of the women, Kira and Irena, and Vario. The first of the women, a minor stab wound; the second, sprained wrist, bruised ribs; Vario took a slash to the forearm, right to the bone. Minor injury. Clean wound. He’ll be back on duty in two weeks.’

‘The slavers?’ Ander was falling back towards sleep, unwilling, but having to make conversation.

‘All three managed to escape ’

‘Three? Who were all those others?’

Conran sighed. ‘The rest  we have no idea who they were or where they were from. They were Southerners, by all accounts, but Southerners from where remains the question.’

Ander heard a moan from nearby. It took him a moment to realise that Irena’s bunk was

adjacent to his own.

‘Kenastus!’ Ander said to the surgeon, who was attending to her, ‘What is that young woman doing in the infirmary?’

‘She is injured, of course! I can move her, if you like,’ the elderly surgeon said, a hint of asperity in his voice, ‘but this is the infirmary, after all ’

‘Your pardon, I wasn’t thinking,’ Ander muttered apologetically. Only the Norlander ships which ventured south were entirely male dominated, and had no facilities and quarters for the female crew members. Something made him glance over at the young woman, prompting him to ask, ‘Why is she breathing like that?’

‘Pneumonia,’ Kenastus replied. ‘These Southerners seem prone to it, until they become acclimatized. That is; assuming they live through it.’

‘Is it catching?’ Ander asked, purely out of ignorant concern. ‘Do her companions carry the

disease as well?’

Kenastus sighed and responded patiently, ‘Pneumonia is what we physicians and surgeons refer to as a condition, as opposed to a disease. For example, a broken arm is a condition, as are bruises, cuts, burns, frostbite, white blindness, and so on. In the case of pneumonia, it is most often a condition of the lungs brought on by prolonged exposure to dampness and cold, when proper attire is lacking, or absent altogether. On the other hand, yellow pox is a disease, as are fevers of the body and head, ravisher’s itch; in short, diseases are lesser members of plague, and as such are communicable, by air, by touch, by lack of cleanliness, by exchange of bodily fluids such as blood, sputum, and so on. Your chances of catching pneumonia from her,’ he pronounced with finality, ‘is about as likely as a ninety year old woman suffering from the menses. Unless, of course,’ he added with a humorous tic, ‘she has come down with one of those rare forms of pneumonia which are brought about by disease.’ Before Ander could respond to this, the physician actually allowed one of his rare, wintery smiles, and said, ‘I jest. The young woman’s condition poses no threat to anyone on board this ship.’

Kenastus left, still smiling. Ander rolled onto his left side, the only part of him that was not stiff or painful, and considered the young woman as she slept. Her left wrist had been bound in a sling, he knew, and her shoulder had been bound, but nothing of her was visible save her face, which was slightly flushed. The rest of her was wrapped warmly in layers of heavy blankets and furs. Vario lay in the bunk above her, and he assumed the other woman, Kira, to be above himself. Looking above to the bottom of the upper bunk, he noticed that the interlaced khaki bands above were bellied out, belying the presence of a body.

-

Some time after falling asleep, he was awakened by the sound of quiet, feminine conversation. He knew the speaker to be T’cha, as Irena sometimes used her name. She sat on the edge of Irena’s bunk, and he listened for a time to their lilting Udin tongue, trying to ascertain where one word ended and the next began. It was a unique language, unlike any other, and by all accounts very difficult to learn. Neither T’cha, Kira, nor Dielu, the fourth member of their party, wore their hair bobbed short, as did Irena, and he was later to find that this had to do with rank; rank, of course, having its privaledges. Kira had been a cook, T’cha a military engineer-surveyor-ballistics expert. At the time, he knew nothing of this, and assumed hair length to be a mere matter of preference.

Eventually, Irena noticed his scrutiny, causing T’cha to stop speaking and turn to him as well. Despite being lithe, fit, and strong, this woman, a fair bit older than Irena, was disconcertingly attractive, and feminine in a way that civilian women simply were not. At the moment, however, both women watched him with open worry. A quiet question from above made him realize that Kira, too, was awake; he assumed she had asked what suddenly had the other’s sudden, rapt attention. T’cha said something in return, and nodded in Ander’s direction. He felt and heard Kira shift above him.

‘On behalf of my fellow crew members,’ T’cha said, addressing Ander formally, ‘Irena, Dielu, Kira, Myrrn and myself, may I ask some questions regarding your intentions?’

‘Two of our crew were killed facilitating your rescue,’ he replied, without sounding accusing. ‘Our captain is going to expect the five of you to fill in to the best of your abilities. You will be quartered together and integrated into the ship’s routine.’

After a moment’s consideration, he added, ‘We will ask certain questions of you, such as What was this business of changing soldiering requirements in mid stream? What is happening in Udin, and What is happening, in general, in the south, in Otar, Talimar, and beyond?’

‘We have heard strange rumours,’ T’cha said, ‘but they defy belief. For myself, I do not believe them.’

‘And what have you heard?’

‘That Talimar is no more,’ she said in a low voice. ‘That Talimar has been overrun, that the

remainder of its citizens have fled to Otar, and fight side by side with the Otari and those of Udin, that the fighting is desperate, and that the defenders are losing ground by the day, being driven steadily north. Such a thing does not seem possible.’

‘Damnation!’ During this exchange, he noticed that Irena had fallen asleep. He indicated this with a nod to T’cha, who stood, gently tucked the young woman back into her blankets and furs, crossed to his bunk, and said, ‘May I?’ indicating that she wished to sit on the side of his bed, so that they could converse quietly while the others slept. He nodded, and noted with relief that unmistakable clean smell that comes from soap and water, emanating from the woman’s form. Not all of Udin’s citizenry was noted for its personal hygiene, though there were great variances in personal standards, as there are within all countries.

‘How old is Irena?’ he asked, more from a need to renew the conversation than from curiosity. The answer he got, however, was much more perplexing than he had bargained for.

‘She has just passed her fifteenth birthday,’ T’cha said, an unmistakable note of relief in her voice. ‘Dielu didn’t think that she would survive thus far.’ To the question in his eyes, she said, ‘Dielu is the fourth member of our group. Shela was the sixth. Shela,’ she said, her features set, though from anger or despair he couldn’t tell, ‘elected to remain in Arseula.’

‘How long did it take to wear her down?’ he asked, ‘To make her do . . . what she was doing, at the time we left.’ Even as he said those words, he began to see the person behind the mask; the

desolation in seeing her companion degrade herself; the very personal effect it had on the

remaining five women.

‘If you are asking whether this was a gradual thing that occurred over time, that the matter of our dispossession came as a final blow, the answer is simply, “No.” She made her decision almost

instantly. She is that sort of person, who reacts to circumstances as they change, and adapts without question. And before you tell me that she had other options, or that the six of us should have banded together and either tried to fight our way back to Udin or find a trade more savory than the one Shela chose for herself, I would remind you that six unattached women, soldiers that we are, are no match for large bands of slavers who augment their numbers with mercenaries who aid them in their abductions. Shela chose life, as a whore. The five of us that remained chose rather to fight to the death; that is what was transpiring when you and your men intervened on our behalf.’

‘What is Dielu’s occupation?’ he asked. ‘And Irena’s.’

T’cha smiled ruefully in response. ‘Irena, you will find, has a way of being overly conscientious where her duties are concerned. As a result, she will either often disappear for long periods at a time, preoccupied with a task she has miscomprehended entirely, or you will find her under foot, asking you many times to explain a simple question that she seems unable to see the simple answer of. In a word, she is young, and tries too hard.

‘Dielu . . . she is a hard one to describe. She is one of those people so unassuming and so

competent as to practically be invisible. She is a navigator by trade, but is more at home in the

rigging. She knows the secret navigator’s art, but she will only use it if the ship is lost, or if some dire peril arises.’

‘I have heard of the secret navigator’s art,’ he said, frowning, ‘but only as rumour. ‘All I

know of it is that certain navigators have the talent to find a ship’s exact position, not just

longitudinally. How does she do this? Have you actually seen it done?’

T’cha shook her head. ‘Never. When the captain asks it of her, she takes a few readings, disappears into her cabin for a time, returns a quarter hour later, tells him where we are, and the best course to set.’

‘She goes to her cabin?’ he wondered. ‘What could she possibly do there that she couldn’t do on deck. How could she possibly descry the ship’s position from a standpoint of utter blindness. Unless she has something to hide ’

‘It is called the secret navigator’s art!’ T’cha reminded him with asperity. ‘Were she to tell everyone, there would be no need for her special talent, though I can tell you that her little secret lies in two small iron bound wooden boxes, both locked, always, one of which makes a clicking sound. Incidently, I was told to ask you something about something called an ice dock, but I can’t remember what it was, or what the name of the dock was. The important thing, it seemed to me, was that some kind of big rail should be waiting for us when we arrive there tomorrow evening.’

‘An ice dock,’ Ander told her with a smile, ‘is a massive barge, heavily constructed to

withstand direct contact with the polar ice sheet. On it are several warehouses containing goods

destined for the North and South. When we arrive there, we will dock, unload our cargo, and

change ships.

‘A big rail simply refers to one type of ship we use. A rail is the most common type of ice ship. At first glance, it looks a bit like a seagoing vessel, but the similarity ends there. A rail runs along the ice on a central keel that is capped with metal. As well, there are one or two outriggers that allow the craft to stand upright. The outriggers are fitted with angular chines that bite into the ice, and are used to steer the ship.

‘The biggest of the rail ships are simply called big rails. There are a variety of smaller craft, some of which are carried on board the rails. These small craft are called skiffs, and are collapsable. There’s nothing much to them but a triangular sail, a triangular frame of wood, three blades to ride the ice, leather netting set into the frame to sit upon and transport goods, and a tiller. They are very fast, and are used for scouting, reconnaisance, and at times, fun and leisure.’

She looked a question at this. ‘How so?’

‘You’ll see,’ he told her. It was then that something caught his eye, that was laying on the shelf where Irena’s belongings had been placed. ‘What sort of shoes are those? May I see them?’ Apprehensively, T’cha brought the shoes to him to examine. ‘What the Devil? How can she fight in these, let alone walk in them? They must add six inches to her height.’

‘She manages, somehow,’ T’cha said, her look belying some guilt over having allowed this discovery, while also conveying concern mixed with an equal awe. ‘It is a drawback when she’s

called on to fight. It was no doubt because of these that she lost her balance and was felled. The

only reason she’s survived this long is because of the ungainly way she fights. The fact that she’s

off balance acts as a distraction on her opponent  except she’s learned to deal with it, to use it to her advantage. She’s learned to be fast. Very fast. The problem is  and this is what Dielu and I were always afraid would happen  the problem is that if she was ever to come up against an opponent like V’tan, whom she couldn’t speedily despatch, then the tables would be turned, and she would be killed.’

‘Yes, but why does she wear them at all?’ Ander prompted, as T’cha was noticeably skirting around the subject.

At that, T’cha replied somewhat defensively. ‘It was the only way she could make the height requirements!’

Ander lay on his back and heaved a sigh. ‘Well, I’m afraid, now that I know, the game’s up. She won’t be returning to active duty. Do not give me that look! She is far too young. Norlandermen men and women are not permitted to enter the service of the Crown until they reach the age of majority, which is twenty. I know that things are done differently in Udin, but you are not in Udin now.’

Considering the sleeping girl, T’cha muttered, ‘What will happen to her, then?’

Ander considered his reply for several long moments before answering.

‘She will have to become someone’s ward . . . whose, I don’t know as yet. If it were possible, she would be sent packing, back home to her parents ’

‘She was orphaned, two years ago,’ T’cha cut him off, tersely. ‘Her parents were murdered by a group of those fanatical clerics who’ve been coming up from the south. The clerics were caught and put to death, and their Mother Church apologized, claiming that the monastic societies are a fringe element that the Mother Church has limited power to control.’

‘But ’ he prompted, seeing from her expression that she left something unsaid.

She hesitated fractionally. Then, holding him with her eyes, as though daring him to accuse her of falsehood, she said, ‘It is obvious, to me at least, that the Mother Church is directly involved with the Monastic Movement, and is somehow also involved with the forces driving their way north.’

Ander stared, knowing the truth in his ears for what it was. ‘Why? What do they hope to gain? What are they about?’

‘They are fanatics!’ she replied, anger in her voice. ‘They do not reason. They lie. They murder. Their justification for their actions is that any who do not believe as they do are pagans and heretics, and as such are summarily murdered. They believe,’ she said, succinctly, ‘that they

have the right to force their beliefs upon anyone and everyone, and that their beliefs are the only

beliefs that are true. Their purpose is not only to conquer the world, but to force it to think as they

do. They are the most evil, despicable creatures that I’ve ever encountered. They make someone

like V’tan look like a saint.’

He remained silent for some time, digesting this. Then, with a sigh, ‘Irena will become my ward. I have three daughters, one of them older than Irena, one the same age, and one younger. They will welcome a new addition.’ He was forced to smile at T’cha’s reaction. ‘It won’t hurt her to live as a child for a while.’

T’cha’s consternation was palpable. ‘She is no child! She has had a hard life, and has known little kindness ’

‘You miscomprehend me. Life at my home is far from indolent. My daughters are not ineffectual maidens. They are warriors. And hunters ’ He laughed at the expression on T’cha’s face. ‘What?’

Colouring slightly, she stammered, ‘If that is so, then who makes your home? Your wife? And sons, if you have any?’

His smile faded, but not entirely. ‘My wife is dead. You needn’t look at me like that! She has been gone twelve years  it is an old grief. She was taken by a fever no physician could identify. I have two sons  one is my eldest, the other is the twin of my daughter who is Irena’s age.

‘All of us share equally in making our home. That is our way; not unlike you Udin from Worren County. Assuredly, the conditions of our lives differ considerably from your own, but the manner in which we are socially organized bears a striking resemblance.’

She was silent several moments, bent in introspect. Then, ‘I would know a thing: how are my companions and I to obtain suitable attire, once we reach more northerly climes?’

‘Suitable clothing will be supplied, once we reach Dawnton’s Landing, the ice dock where we will unload our cargo and change ships.’ He smiled at the thought. ‘I must warn you; we will soon reach cooler latitudes. Your friends and yourself will find yourselves spending most of your time in the galley, where the greatest warmth is afforded. And ’ his smile broadened, ‘do not be afraid to ask for more blankets. You will need them! And don’t be surprised if you find yourselves reluctant to leave your warm beds come each morning. Rising and bathing are a trial in the north, even for those of us who have lived there all our lives. Only our homes are free from these discomforts. Well, to be truthful, most of our homes. Those less well built, or poorer, are inclined to be somewhat . . . inhospitable.’

-

Two days later, rousing himself and leaving the infirmary, despite Kenastus’ protestations, Ander made his way to the captain’s quarters. He found captain Danver alone in his spacious cabin at the rear of the ship, pondering a number of communications. The burly fellow, dressed only in breeches, long grey underwear and suspenders, looked up in surprise, appraising Ander sceptically.

‘Back already?’ He said in an exaggerated, long suffering tone. ‘Thought I was going to have a little peace for at least a week or two.’

Smiling, Ander seated himself, though a little unsteadily.

His scrutiny narrowing, the captain said, ‘I’m restricting your duties, at least until our arrival at Dawnton’s. I don’t want you dropping dead on me.’

Knowing better than to argue with his captain’s assessmant, Ander said, ‘I’ll be taking away the

youngest of your new recruits, Irena, as my ward ’

‘Ah, I thought that one was a little young to be playing soldier,’ Danver said with a father’s ire. ‘What about her parents, or her immediate family?’

‘My understanding is that she has none. That knowledge prompted my decision.’

The captain nodded. Then, indicating the pile of correspondence before him, he said, ‘Ander, have you heard anything concerning events in the south?’

He shrugged. ‘What I have heard is hearsay. Rumour has it that Talimar has fallen, and that Otar is beset. I have doubts about what I hear, however, because it is claimed that Otar, Talimar and Udin have united against this threat to the south. Such a thing is not only unheard of, but goes

against all that I know of the relationships between those three countries. Udin and Talimar have

been at war for untold generations, and Otar, which lies between them, has been and remained forever neutral.’

The captain belied no reaction, but said, ‘Of the monastics which plague these three countries; what do you know of them?’

Ander shrugged. ‘I have heard that they are a dangerous nuisance, but little more. I have heard that they have committed unconscionable acts not sanctioned by their mother church, and that the connexion between themselves and their mother church is tenable, at best.’

Danver’s look was unreadable. ‘Your perception is too much like my own and too many others to be mere coincidence. It is my opinion that this perception has been cultivated by the monastics and the church, both of them working closely together. And it is my further opinion that this perception is a deliberately misleading connivance.

‘Consider: I have before me a number of communications from friends of mine, from Udin,

Otar and Talimar. They tell me that, despite appearances, the monastic’s Mother Church is bent upon conquest, and that the monastics themselves are directly involved. I have it on good authority that they have been sent from the church, that their affiliation is neither indirect nor unsanctioned. Moreover, it would seem that they are more than simply the eyes and ears of the church; in truth, the atrocities they have committed have been ordered by the church. As well, they have been sent to interfere with and undermine the sovereignty of those nations the church wishes to subjugate, by sowing discord and discontent, by corrupting and misleading the gullible, and by enslaving the minds of the vulnerable and credulous.

‘I have been informed also,’ he continued in a lower voice, ‘that the Order of Monastics, as they style themselves, are a caste of brainwashed fanatics, that they are the church’s most potent weapon. It is difficult for the average person to doubt one who is absolutely convinced in his own

beliefs, whether his beliefs are with or without foundation. There is the unfortunate tendency in

many or most people to equate certainty with truth. And don’t smile! I do not think you as yet

appreciate the danger, should these dangerous fanatics succeed. I tell you, Ander, it is their intent

to subjugate the world! And they are succeeding!

He sighed. ‘We know all too little about the lands occupied by the monastic’s mother church. But they are vast, Ander! They have conquered many countries, and have subjugated their armies, which are now their armies. And now they have turned their minds north and west to the coastal countries. Talimar fell in a matter of weeks. Otar is sorely beset, and forced to retreat, despite inflicting bitter losses upon their enemy. When Otar falls  and it will fall  Udin will be crushed. When that happens, we will be the next to feel the axe upon our necks.’

Ander was silent for several moments, thinking. At last, he muttered, ‘If what you say is so, then we should be raising an army . . . but no, that would be foolish. Fighting a war in southern climes would be suicide. It is not what we know. It would be better . . .’ he raised an eyebrow at the inescapable revelation.

‘Aye, I can see that you’ve arrived at the same conclusion as myself,’ captain Danver said. ‘Meet them on our own ground, and on our own terms.’

‘But what of our neighbours to the south?’ Ander said.

Danver gave him a measuring look. ‘We have but two choices. Abandon or evacuate them. All of them; every last man, woman and child.’

‘But they would not survive!’ Ander protested. ‘They know not how to survive in the North! Even were we to help them, our resources would be quickly and dangerously depleted!’

‘That would be true, of course,’ Danver said, ‘at least in the beginning. But they would soon learn. Besides,’ he said, his eyes hard, ‘I doubt very much that the monastics’ Mother Church will find the North to their liking. For a while, a year at least, they would be confined to the most southerly edge of the polar ice sheet, where we could easily deal with them. Over time, of course, their numbers and experience would increase. But by then, our southerly neighbours would be hardened, trained, and self sufficient.’ His grin was like the blade of a scimitar. ‘And we could simply lead the Mother Church into areas of the north that are far more deadly, pitiless and uncompromising than they could ever hope to be.’

Ander, however, wasn’t so certain.

‘These monastics . . .’ he muttered. ‘The worst accounts, that until now I had given no credence to . . . there are claims that they have conquered many countries, heedless of their losses, and are single minded in their pursuit of conquest. No one seems to know from whence they originated on their perverse road of invasiveness and murder, but these same tales claim that they have adapted themselves to untold climes, forest, desert, mountain, sea, jungle, and the stars know what else.’ He sighed, his gaze locked in the elsewhere vision of his thoughts like a sighted man questioning his ability to see. ‘Will the North fall too, I wonder?’

2

Ander sat in the galley, enjoying the crackling, radiant warmth of the stoves, sipping the hot, sweet-spicy beverage that was the favourite of sailors. He sighed, deeply, enjoying the rough-wood smell of the old ship and the comfortably chaotic look of outdoor clothes hanging everywhere, the tangy, resinous smell of white, freshly split kindling in its copper by the cookstove, the rattle of the windowpanes; even each invasive draft of chilly air that got past the remnant of each window’s crumbling caulking.

To the sailor in him, all of these things meant home.

An incongruously young voice caught his attention, and with an inward smile, he watched T’cha and the reluctant Irena step over the storm sill into the galley. Ander had ordered Irena’s footwear confiscated and tossed overboard, her military accoutrements stowed away in a lockbox where they would remain until she reached the age of majority. She now appeared as she was- a young girl still in need of her parents. Her arm in a sling giving her some difficulty as she stepped over the storm sill, she looked very small and out of place, and all too obviously felt it acutely.

T’cha responded to his smile as she and her charge tacitly joined him, she nodding to the cook who brought the two newcomers thick stew in earthenware bowls with handles. This was served with bread and hot spiced drink.

There was a frigid gust of wind as the galley door was opened, admitting Dielu, Kira and Myrrn, in the company of several crewmembers. The door was closed with a thud and latched. Kira seemed none the worse for wear. From the crewmen’s talk, they had been duly impressed by

Dielu’s secret navigator’s art.

‘Some of your men made the mistake of challenging Myrrn to a game of paku,’ T’cha

remarked as she reached across and broke Irena’s bread for her. ‘Wipe that expression off your

face, young lady!’

‘Then stop treating me as though I were a child!’ Ander and T’cha caught each other’s eye at

that, as there was little real protest in Irena’s voice; she was all too obviously more interested in

trying the fresh, aromatic bread T’cha buttered for her than anything else, and accepted it from the woman with the habitual aplomb of a child well used to a parent’s attentions.

‘The two of you have been together longer than with the other three?’ Ander asked.

T’cha shook her head. ‘I’ve known Myrrn and Kira since they were children. We hail from the same village. Dielu I’ve known since she was in diapers. Her father was the best navigator in all Udin, and she was an only child, which is the reason the secret navigator’s art got passed on to a woman.

‘I first made Irena’s acquaintance when her parents were bu  . . . when they passed away, two years ago when Irena was thirteen.’ She put an arm around the girl and caressed her cheek as she said this. Irena reddened slightly at this overt display of affection, but was unable to conceal the ghost of an embarrassed smile as she ate her stew.

‘What was this about paku?’ Ander asked, sensing that T’cha wished to change the subject away from the deaths of Irena’s parents.

T’cha gave him a look. ‘Be forewarned: she’ll take them for every last coin if you let her!’

‘She’s that good with a throwing knife,’ Ander said ingenuously.

‘A year ago, while on patrol, we came upon an ambush: two Talimari bowmen laying at the side of a trail, waiting for the right moment to begin picking us off. I thought Myrrn was being rude when she gave me a push and went walking on ahead. Then, faster than you can say “spit,” she reached to her holsters and tossed two knives, underhand, simultaneously.’

‘She got them both in the left eye,’ Irena said as she used the last of her bread to sop the remains of her stew. ‘The one of them just lay there twitching like a fish, until one of the men came up and smashed his head with a rock. Myrrn was really mad, because stuff from his head got all over us.’

Ander was hard put not to gape at the girl’s offhandedness. He sighed, and reminded himself that Irena was in all ways a child of war.

‘Well,’ he said, seeing that the two were finished, ‘let’s go out on deck. What remains of the

afternoon will be the last open water you’ll see for a while.’

-

They didn’t stay out on deck for very long; despite their heavy furs and layers of garments, the two women were soon chilled to the bone and juddering. High overhead, taut lines and rigging sang the never-ending lament of the sea, and the sails snapped their cracking reports in the keening wind; eyes teared so badly that only glimpses were caught of the great wooden vessel. Spume torn from whitecapped swells gave sky and sea alike a green-grey, indistinct cast.

It seemed to T’cha that such things were almost supernatural, until she noted the sails overhead which, rather than the white she was expecting, were a worn grey tan, and showed the plain, everyday human labour of many repaired rents and holes.

On the deck were coiled hawsers thick as a man’s forearm; canvas tarpaulins lashed to deck cleats protected whalers loaded with tackle and gear; a swirl of smoke from the galley stoves teared the eyes and filled the nostrils with acrid woodsmoke; silent terns wheeled high above throughout the wind-strewn heavens like the sentinels of some ancient, forgotten, primitive god of nature.

The sheer size of the vessel and everything on it made T’cha feel small, ineffectual. It was then she noted with awe the men in the rigging, seemingly immune to the elements as they went about their business. She had been on many ships, but never one like this! It was easily four times the length of any seagoing vessel she’d ever laid eyes on.

In the distance to the north was a dazzling line of white running from horizon to horizon. Squinting, she shielded her eyes, trying to make it out. At last, she noticed an irregularity; what from this distance appeared to be little more than a black spot.

‘Ice dock,’ Ander told her. He noted with a smile the way Irena stayed close to T’cha; bored, but staying near with insecure patience. ‘That’s Saltery’s Landing. Dawnton’s is further west. Saltery is where most of your fish comes from. Those two ships you see there, a half-knot to the east of us, are cooperage schooners. The little one with the blue and red pennant is the Okandra; she’s an Otari ship. The other is one of ours; the Ootsa. They take the empty barrels back to Saltery, and take the full ones to the southern markets.’

‘Why don’t we just go to that ice dock there if it’s closer?’ Irena asked him.

‘Because there isn’t enough reliable wind for the big rails,’ he told her. ‘The closer you get to the continental land mass below the ice shield, the less wind you get. Ten leagues north and it’s

another story entirely.

‘Where will we be going from Dawnton’s Landing?’

‘A city called Port Brun.’

Irena considered him doubtfully. ‘A port? But . . . I thought all the water was frozen up there.’

Ander smiled at her incredulity. ‘It’s a port for the big rail ships.’

‘So you’ve got landings on the water, and ports on the land.’

Chuckling, Ander said, ‘I think it will make more sense to you when you see it for yourself.’

-

When they got back inside, Ander wasn’t entirely surprised when Myrrn announced to T’cha that

she, Kira and Dielu would be remaining on captain Danver’s ship, Dielu as co navigator, Kira as

cook on the evening watch, and Myrrn . . . would generally make herself useful.

T’cha watched the three go, her expression one of wry ire.

‘What?’ Ander asked her as he walked the two back to their quarters.

T’cha sighed, deeply. ‘Kira and Dielu are genuinely remaining to work.’

‘And Myrrn ?’ Ander prompted.

‘ has other interests entirely,’ she finished, evasively.

He drew her to a stop, and said quietly, inclining his head towards their cabin door, ‘Irena, would you mind?’

Mystified, giving the two of them a speculative look, she went into the cabin and closed the door.

‘What will you do once we reach Port Brun?’ Ander asked T’cha, watching her carefully and speaking in a low voice because he suspected that Irena listened at the door. ‘You’re welcome to work aboard my rail ship, but we’ll be a month in Port Brun.’

T’cha shrugged, but looked very uncomfortable, if not unhappy. ‘I hadn’t been thinking that far ahead.’

‘Well,’ Ander said carefully, ‘neither have I, for the most part. But nevertheless, I think you should come with me.’

T’cha stared. She had gone very pale.

‘What-?’

‘You heard me.’

‘But . . . in what capacity?’

His sober look couldn’t conceal the smile in his eyes. ‘As Irena’s mother.’

‘What? But I thought she was to be your ward ’

‘We can adopt her.’

A moment later, Irena opened the cabin door, and cried out in alarm, ‘What was that noise? What’s wrong with T’cha?’

Ander shifted the unconscious T’cha more comfortably in his arms.

‘I asked her to marry me.’

‘Oh.’

Ander watched the girl with amusement as she worked out the implications of this.

‘Well . . . did she say “yes”?’

-

Dielu, Myrrn and Kira came to watch the docking, and to see the three off. T’cha had said little to Ander since his impromptu proposal, and since seemed withdrawn.

They watched as the sails were lowered, the lines tossed to dockworkers who tied bow, stern and spring lines to cleats lining the dock. The dock itself was of the floating variety, and was so massive that rows of red-painted wooden warehouses and other smaller businesses were built upon it. Beyond, dozens of gangways connected the dock to the southernmost edge of the continental ice sheet that covered the entire northern polar cap.

From some distance out they had see large buildings on the ice sheet, and that a forest of masts of all sizes lay beyond them, but from the proximity of the dock, scant yards above sea-level, nothing of this could be seen.

Once docked, Ander and Captain Danver said their good bye’s, as did the five women. Soon

after, T’cha and Irena followed in Ander’s wake as he led them past the busy cargo crews, up six storeys along a gangway that switched back and forth until it reached the height of the polar ice-sheet, and then directly to a long, low building, behind which rose a forest of masts. Once inside the building, Ander led the two to a huge cafeteria. The entire north wall was one, long continuous window, T’cha and Irena saw with wonder, and through the glass they could see strange looking vessels tied up at strange looking docks.

As Ander seated the two and deposited their luggage in a nearby rack, a man began ringing a

hand bell and bellowed out, ‘Passengers for the Spyglass Hill, now boarding at slip eighteen! All Passengers for the Spyglass Hill, you now have one hour . . .’

‘Where is Spyglass Hill?’ Irena asked excitedly.

‘The Spyglass Hill is a big rail,’ Ander told her. He left them for a few moments, and came back with a tray of plates of food, bowls of soup, a loaf of bread and butter, three empty flagons and a pitcher of hot flavoured milk. He smiled as T’cha and Irena stared wonderingly at the indistinct, windswept vista beyond, into which they would be heading within the hour. Both had been thoroughly chilled by the icy northern blast that took the breath away; both had groaned in disbelief when Ander informed them that what they were experiencing was warm compared to temperatures farther north; that they were experiencing comparative warmth because of the proximity of the ocean.

‘Which one will we be going on?’ Irena asked him, wondering how far she was going to have to walk before they reached the comparative warmth of one the waiting ships. She had just discarded her sling on the table, though her arm and wrist were still very sore.

Ander nodded to a ship three slips away to the right. ‘See that one, with the blue pennants and the blue trim on her sails (as least, they will be when they’re up), and the blue stripe on her glossy black hull? She’s called the Arctic Wind, and she’s about the fastest rail around. The one beside her, that looks almost identical, with the red pennants, and with the red stripe on the blue hull; that’s our sister ship, the Arctic Blue. And if you look down there to the left, at that huge black thing with a white stripe running down her side, that’s the Northern Gale.’

T’cha and Irena could only gape at the sheer size of the monster and those tied up in the adjacent berths. ‘Why . . . you could carry our entire village on that behemoth . . . belongings and all . . . with room to spare,’ T’cha said faintly. She sounded appalled at the prospect. ‘But . . . I don’t understand . . . how is it that these monstrosities don’t break their backs?’

Remembering T’cha’s engineering background, Ander answered her directly.

‘First of all,’ Ander reminded her, ‘the ice is as flat as a sheet of glass. The ice is also porous because of disturbances from deep beneath the earth; if you dig down far enough, you’ll find hot underground springs. These are used to heat our port cities, and facilities like this. Hot mineral

waters percolate up through the ice and freezes giving it a porous, though glasslike surface. The

walls of the minute network of holes through the ice are made up of hardened mineral salts.

‘The ships themselves are tremedously flexible; see how low they’re built? And how long? They’re held upright by those things called outriggers that are attached to their sides ’

‘Oh!’ Irena blurted. ‘I thought those were just little boats . . . I mean rails.’

‘Also, if you look carefully underneath one, you’ll see that the big rail on the bottom sits on what looks like a row of short, thick stilts that are tipped at an angle towards the back. The actual rail, and the bottom part of the ship it’s attached to, together are called the carriage. The carriage is full of powerful springs, and as the ship is loaded, the tension in the springs is adjusted accordingly ’

He was interrupted by the clanging of a hand bell.

Passengers boarding the Arctic Wind, the Arctic Blue and the Northern Gale ’

‘That’s us,’ Ander told them, rising and distributing the luggage from the rack.

-

T’cha and Irena stared as the men standing at the bottom of the gangplank took their luggage, and said to Ander, ‘Welcome back, Captain! We’re ready for departure.’

T’cha and Irena exchanged a look, silently mouthing the word, Captain?

Smiling wryly at T’cha, Ander said, ‘That’s why I wanted your answer before we arrived.’

Irena turned a suspicious, indignant look on T’cha. ‘You did say “yes,” didn’t you?’

With a half smile, as they reached the top of the gangplank and stepped on board the ship,

she said cryptically, ‘I may have.’

-

Irena and T’cha stared in wonder and disbelief out the windows of the spacious bridge. They couldn’t have imagined such a thing! Centring the bridge was a huge, spoked wheel that turned the outriggers, a feat that took surprisingly little effort. The ship had seven short masts, and

though the sails were furled, the ship gave a sudden lurch as the lines were cast off, and began

sliding away from the dock in such a way that it seemed the dock itself was receding from them.

‘We’re being towed,’ Ander explained. ‘They’ll drag us out a few hundred yards, turn us about, then we’ll raise our sails and be on our way.’

‘Towed how?’ T’cha asked him.

‘There are tracks running underneath the ships. Cables run down the centre of the tracks. They’re hooked onto the ships by chokermen, like those men there, behind that ship. You see how the ground crew are hitching that cable to the line hanging off the stern of that vessel? There! That man just waved his hand, the operators in the windmill have engaged the mechanism, and there! you can see that the line is being pulled . . . there, now that ship is moving, too. This is how the chokermen move the ships into or away from the docks. As I said, the cables are winched by those windmills . . . you see? There are four of them.’

‘I wondered what those were for,’ T’cha breathed, shaking her head. ‘Certainly not for grinding!’

At last there was another slight lurch as the ship came to a stop. And then, as if by magic, the

sails began rising, seemingly of their own accord. They bellied out at once . . .

Irena frowned as she watched this. ‘Why aren’t we moving? And what’s making the sails go up?’

‘We’re moving. It just takes a fair while for the ship to gain momentum. And if you look there, you’ll see that the sails are raised and lowered by men inside those little booths with the glass roofs,’ Ander told her.

‘They never have to go outside?’ T’cha asked in wonder.

‘Not if they can help it,’ Ander replied cryptically.

Though at times it seemed they weren’t moving at all, within the hour, the Arctic Wind and the Arctic Blue had taken up flanking positions on either side of the Northern Gale. Irena spent the next hours walking restlessly about the circular wheelhouse, pausing occasionally to sit and stare outside, or to watch the crew, or look at the huge gimbaled compass, or press her face against the double glass and try to guess the speed of the great ice ships. It was an odd sensation, feeling as though one were sitting still, though simultaneously moving at some unguessable speed that could have been a snail’s pace or free fall in a void. At last, she went to where Ander and T’cha were talking quietly together, and ventured a question.

‘Are we going faster and faster? It’s so hard to tell.’

Ander smiled at that, and prompted, ‘The farther north we go, the harder the wind blows.’

‘But . . . it’s starting to get dark out. How will we see?’

Ander pointed to the Northern Gale. ‘See those red lights on the side of her bridge? That means we’re on her left side. If you look through the little windows of those little brass doors on the far wall, you’ll see we’ve got red lights on our left side, too, and on the other side of the wheelhouse there are green lights. Now, if you’re too far away, you can tell because the lights get smaller and closer together. And if you’re too close, they get much brighter and farther apart.

‘See that thing, there, by the far window? If you go up to it and look through it, you’ll see that the front of it has markings on the glass that correspond with the running lights. If all the lights line up with the markings perfectly, then the Northern Gale will be almost exactly one thousand feet away ’

‘What makes the lights? And how are they coloured?’

‘Very bright oil lamps with reflectors, and coloured glass coverings,’ he told her.

He smiled as Irena left them to look through the fixed-distancing device, her features a mask of curiosity and anticipation.

‘You were saying,’ T’cha prompted. Then, addressing his incomprehension, added, ‘You were about to tell me about your children.’

‘Ah, yes, well they are five in number; the twins, a girl and boy, Niia and Nils, are fifteen years of age. My eldest is Acton; he is eighteen. Berni is sixteen, and my youngest daughter, Una, is

thirteen.

‘I doubt you will see much of Acton and Berni. They spend little time at home. Acton spends

most of his time with his young girlfriend, and Berni lives at the home of her boyfriend’s parents.

Niia, Nils and Una are old enough to look after themselves, and mind my affairs while I’m away.’

They talked until long into the night, until T’cha nodded meaningly toward Irena’s sleeping form, curled up on one of the padded benches running around the perimeter of the wheelhouse. She didn’t waken as Ander scooped her up in his arms, carried her down the wide staircase, then

turned fully withershins so that he was facing the ship’s forward quarters.

As the entrance to the one he selected, T’cha forestalled him with a hand on his arm.

‘Where are your quarters?’

Indicating with his head, he said, ‘On the other side.’

‘Are they as spacious as these?’

‘They’re much bigger, actually,’ he said, frowning. ‘There’s an extra room that lies at the centre, between these quarters and mine. I had thought that you might like the use of it.’

‘Is it in use?’

‘Not at the moment ’

‘Would you mind very much putting Irena in there? I prefer having her nearby.’

Ander paused to let this sink in, smiled, and shook his head. ‘So your answer was “Yes.”’

T’cha smiled to herself as he bore the sleeping Irena to her new quarters.

-

They were awakened the next morning by the sound of the galley bell. Ander hadn’t intended to sleep in so late. He arose immediately, and chuckled at the sight of the sleep muzzied, disoriented Irena who came stumbling out of her new quarters in search of T’cha. Ander soon left the two to pursue his duties.

Sometime later, T’cha and Irena were alone together at a table in the galley, marvelling at the huge panels of double walled, heavy tempered glass, that were even larger than those of the

wheelhouse.

Far more amazing was the speed of the great ice ship and her two companions. If Irena was doubtful that the ice ships would or could ever move beyond a snail’s pace, any doubt was dispelled now! The mighty Northern Gale left a swirling wake as she hurtled north like a jerrid, cutting a course that was just a few points left of the howling arctic wind. Between her sails they could see the Arctic Blue; the three ships moved together with such precision that it seemed at times as though the ships were stationary, that it was actually the terrain and the wind that were flying by.

‘T’cha! Look! Over there!’

Smiling at the girl’s excitement, T’cha turned to see what had caught her attention  and gasped.

Hurtling between the great ice ships, moving at breakneck speed, there came a dozen brightly coloured, odd looking little craft. They resembled the skiffs Ander had described, save

that instead of a canvas sail, they had what appeared to be an upright, rigid, sail shaped wing. As

well, the pilot of each was enclosed in a glassed in cockpit. Both women stood up and moved

close to the glass so that they could watch as the tiny craft shot across the bow of the Arctic Wind

in a line.

It was in doing so that they noticed something in the distance that was approaching swiftly: it

appeared to be a white wall, with small, dark objects laying at the base of it.

‘Port Brun,’ an elderly steward said with a nod as he removed their dishes.

‘Look at all the ships!’ Irena breathed in awe as she realised what the specks were.

The two stared in awe as the wall of the port rose before them. It appeared to be a wall of

ice two hundred feet high, and at least two miles wide. All around it were wooden buildings and

docks and ships. At intervals of perhaps two thousand feet there stood windmills, similar to those

at Dawnton’s Landing, but much larger.

They felt the pull of inertia as the ship began slowing, her sails dropping as one. They were just beginning to wonder if the ship would stop in time before ramming into the docks, when it came to a halt.

They were at the entrance to their quarters when the ship lurched forward once more, as it began to be dragged by cable towards its berth. A half hour later, and they were dockside. Ander came and got them, leading the way to a special hatch located amidship. To the newcomers’ surprise, a moveable covered gangway led directly to a continuous sheltered area with passageways leading right through the great ice wall that protected Port Brun.

T’cha noted that although the wall was largely comprised of ice, it was built around a framework of wood that showed in places. There were many side passages and doors leading into the wall itself, and she made a mental note to ask Ander about them.

If the wall was two hundred feet tall, it was also nearly three hundred feet thick at its base, and when they passed through to the other side, T’cha had to press on the small of Irena’s back to keep the girl moving, for within the ice wall lay a city, the like of which neither of the newcomers had ever dreamed!

To conserve heat, the gaily painted rows of wooden gingerbread-house buildings were built one against the other, and ranged from two to four storeys in height. As there was nothing other than foot traffic, the streets were very narrow. Atop each building was a tall, ice-rheumed chimney, from which clouds of vapour issued; the air around them was dazzled with rainbows; the air itself full of glittering ice fog.

It was a long walk, and T’cha and Irena were at the point of wondering if their journey would never end, when Ander led them to the front door of a large, four storey dwelling. To their

surprise, behind the door was another door. Ander opened both for them, led them inside and had

them place their luggage on the floor. They were in a foyer, beyond which lay yet another door.

Ander opened this 

 and was immediately set upon by his five children and a number of friends and neighbours.

‘One moment, everyone!’ Ander announced. ‘I have a pair of introductions to make. T’cha, Irena . . . come, don’t be shy, Irena.’ He smiled as T’cha propelled the girl from the foyer so that she could close the door behind themselves. The dwelling was comfortable and warm: there were radiators around the perimeter of the room.

Ander made the introductions all around, including Jan, Acton’s girlfriend, and Jan’s parents; there was Berni’s boyfriend, Lannon, and his parents; and then there were the twins, Nils and Niia, and finally Una, the youngest daughter.

Lannon’s father, Aldon, a barrel chested, red bearded man, smiled broadly at the sight of T’cha. ‘All right, Ander, let’s skip to the important things before you burst. When are the two of you to be married? If you were planning on getting us all together for the occasion, well, we’re here, aren’t we? Shall I send for the cleric?’

Ander stood gaping foolishly.

‘What makes you think ’

‘Get a cleric here, Acton! Your father will make a mess of things if we don’t straighten him out right away.’

‘But ’

‘Here, have a cup of hot punch, Ander my lad. You, too, Miss. If he puts up a fight, I’ll hold him down for the proceedings.’

‘She hasn’t exactly said “Yes,”’ Ander managed to get in.

‘Ander, my lad,’ Aldon said judiciously, ‘if you think this beautiful creature came all this way just to say “No,” then you’re in dire need of enlightenment.’

-

That evening, after the guests had departed and taken Acton and Berni with them, T’cha was relieved to find Irena in Niia’s room, the two girls sitting cross legged on Niia’s bed, chattering away like old friends. Nils lay sprawled on his side, head propped up on his elbow, smiling to himself, all too obviously smitten with the oblivious Irena. Against the other wall, in her own bed, Una lay fast asleep.

She sensed his presence at her back before he slipped his arms and his warmth around her.

‘Shall we call it a day, Mrs Kjellan?’

‘Shouldn’t they be in bed, first?’

‘After tonight. Right now, they need to burn off the initial excitement.’

‘And we don’t?’

He chuckled, and scooped her up in his arms.

‘Not by talking about it.’

3

Many a long year ago, while still a young, rising star among the Monastics, Father Adrian’s superiors had intervened in what should have been an uneventful life of devotion, and sent him to a tiny, far-off coastal country called Otar by its inhabitants, though to the Church the entire region was known simply as Karumabab, or Gate of the West. Then a young man, he had been given two reasons that had since become his sole purpose in life: to further the Faith, and to advance the Cause. Upon his arrival at the mid northern coastal nation, his superior, Father Black, had advised him with some amusement that the only difference between attaining the two goals was this: ‘In the first case it means exploiting the weak of faith; in the second, the weak of will.’

The young Father Adrian had raised an eyebrow at that, and considered the older man warily. He remembered the incident in all its numbing clarity: Father Black had sat across from him at his desk in almost total darkness; only a few cracks of blinding sunlight found their way into the room through gaps in the threadbare curtains. The room was otherwise hot, stuffy, and oppressive. On Father Black’s shoulder sat an evil looking primate of some sort. The memory of seeing the creature under better lighting conditions made Father Adrian’s gorge rise; it was a mass of matted fur the colour of ashes, and open sores. He suspected that Father Black, from the smell of him, suffered from the same mange and ringworm himself . . . perhaps worse.

‘Are not Faith and Will one and the same thing?’

Father Black had chuckled at that. ‘But that is exactly the point! The Heathens must be taught the difference between Right and Wrong . . . between Good and Evil. And between their own will and the Will of the One God.’

This was a point that had always deeply disturbed Father Adrian; according to Church Doctrine, Mankind was flawed . . . evil by nature, because of his ignorance of the Will of God.

Some of the people he had been sent to destroy presented a troubling paradox; they acted morally. That is to say, they acted as though they followed Church Doctrine, when in fact they seemed to hold a thinly veiled contempt for the Church and all it stood for.

Most troubling of all, they believed that the will was valid, but that Faith was not. This attitude only further rankled the Church because these people were strong and proud, despite

Church Doctrine concerning the relationship between Faith and Will, which taught that those

with little spiritual faith were therefore physically, socially, morally, and mentally weak; and to

make matters worse, they believed that all men were mortal!

A few of these Heathens were even known to have said that God Himself was nothing more than a mental aberration. A disease of the mind.

These Heathens were the most dangerous the Church had yet encountered. The Church, in Its wisdom, vowed to destroy this nation and its two neighbours, Talimar, which lay to the south of

Otar, and Udin, which lay to the north; coastal countries, both, cut off from the northern continent proper by a series of impassable ranges of mountain.

To kill an idea, one had to kill the mind that harboured it. The innocent, sadly, would die along with the guilty. Ideas were like disease . . . they had a way of spreading, unless all of those exposed were eradicated.

‘We are like surgeons,’ Father Adrian mused. ‘The only difference being that we use the Sword of God rather than the surgeon’s knife.’

Oh, yes, Father Adrian, but who will be left to kill you and yours?

At the time, Father Adrian had answered, ‘Your question is not valid. I am a man of God, and of the Church. I follow His Will, and act upon His Word. His Conscience is my Conscience.’

Ah, then you see yourself as being beyond reproach. How fortunate for you. How convenient! But to have surrendered your conscience to God . . . to act God’s Will . . . isn’t that like having no conscience or will of your own? And, dare I say it? . . . perhaps, in truth, you have no conscience at all? And perhaps the will you follow is not the Will of God at all, but instead the will of the Church? In effect, the will of men much like yourself . . . men with no conscience?

The man who said those words had been dead for many a long year now. When he had uttered those words, he was a Kalif from a land far to the south now under the Church’s dominion. A young Father Adrian, in just retribution, had, with the assistance of a number of Church mercenaries, taken the Kalif, his family and friends, and his serfs, and subjected them to the most

exquisite forms of torture the Church had to offer, in a worthy and just battle for their immortal

souls.

Though tortured extravagantly, the Kalif had recanted not a syllable. His dying words were burned into Father Adrian’s mind, just as hot irons had burnt into the Kalif’s flesh.

Until I came to know you, I never dreamt there was such Evil in the world. How ironic, that at the end it should be such as I, and not such as yourself, who knows the difference between Good and Evil. The Church is a curse upon the land . . . you whom we trusted and welcomed with open arms.

I curse thee with my dying breath . . . and all that you stand for.

Father Adrian, realising that his last chance to save the man’s immortal soul was slipping through his fingers, shouted in righteous anger, ‘You dare to judge God?’

Even through his physical agony, the Kalif had smiled then, and a cold finger of fear, fed by a lack of understanding of this man, touched Father Adrian’s heart.

It is you and your Church who dares such a thing, Father Adrian . . . just as surely as it is your Church who sees fit to put words into the Mouth of God . . .

The man was mad, of course. What could an ignorant Heathen know that the Church, which had studied the matter since time immemorial, did not know?

And yet, despite years of unflaggingly faithful service, and prayer for Divine Guidance and

Intervention, the man’s words echoed as clearly this day as they had so many years ago.

But why?

Father Adrian had prayed for the words to disappear, to lapse into silence . . . for them not to gnaw at his heart, his mind . . .

He assumed that God, in His infinite Wisdom, had left them there for good reason . . . a reason Father Adrian had yet to discover.

-

The young soldier patrolling the castle wall paused briefly to take in the view below. The castle was perched atop a promontory jutting from the foothill of a steep, ice-stained mountain whose angular cliffs rose tier after tier to a single high bluff of bare rock. This great tor, consisting of irregular, flat, smooth-worn near-vertical slabs, had a look of impending timelessness about it, and none who first laid eyes upon its facets could avoid feeling a deep-rooted, nostalgic antiquity radiating from its presence.

From the young soldier’s vantage could be seen half a league of snow covered farmland that gradually gave way to low hills and evergreen forest to the north and south. The lie of the land was canted downwards towards the west, plunging a scant five furlongs and ending abruptly in a rocky, irregular coastline and the open sea.

It was the empty void of the ocean that held her attention, a sea that seemed as darkly brooding and coldly ice-viscous and leaden as her own aching soul. For two long years now, she had watched and waited in vain for the sight of sails returning from the south, which for her would mark the beginning of the long voyage home. At times, the ache would become a cold foreboding, and a small, fearful voice inside her would ask the unthinkable: “What if they never come?”

Her scrutiny of the ocean was brief for good reason; her ability to function depended on distraction . . . on keeping herself busy. Loneliness, grief and despair dogged her at every turn, seemed to follow always in her wake, just out of sight.

Making her way along the smooth worn stone steps, she could often feel it looming behind her. It even occurred to her at times that if she could just turn around fast enough, she might even see it . . . fleshed out . . . a apparition distilled from feelings so strong that she felt they must represent something real.

In her dreams, she imagined it to be a spectre so terrifying that she couldn’t bring herself to look upon its face. What might happen if she did was unclear . . . but in the back of her mind, something told her that looking into the eyes of it didn’t bear thinking about.

It was mid winter now. The wind coming from the gelid ocean was bitter cold, making exposed flesh burn. The rocky shoreline was coated with a frozen rheum.

She wrapped her inadequate, threadbare cape more securely around herself and pulled the hood down a little more to keep out the biting wind. The farmlands along the beach below looked as empty and bleak as despair itself, the barren earth lying hard and frozen, the trees in the orchards appearing as though summer itself had died and would never come again.

The sun was obscured by high, grey cloud, its disc appearing at once flat and lifeless. Despite its presence there were no shadows. As she stared at the frozen flagstones ahead, with frozen slush scrunching beneath her boots, with breath coming in gulps of frigid air and leaving in clouds of vapour, with wrists aching from the cold and eyes watering, with ears red and stinging, she felt oddly like a ghost. She had heard that ghosts, too, did not cast shadows; that they suffered the torment of being bereft from life, and were left to wander the Land of Shadows, aimlessly and

forever, without hope to guide them, sustained only by vague memories of happier times.

Her name was T’li. She was the youngest daughter of the Thane of Woren County, to the far north. Two week’s journey along the craggy shoreline, past a hundred fjords and treacherous reefs, lay her homeland of Udin. Of the twelve counties, Woren was the furthest inland to the east. It was by far the poorest county, laying high in the hills like a sacrifice cast upon mostly barren rock. All about Woren county lay high, craggy, granite hills; within were sparse grasslands, where only the very hardy could eke out a subsistence living. Most of her folk were shepherds, stonemasons, jewellers, and metalsmiths, and it was largely by selling their skills and wares to the neighbouring counties that they eked out a living.

The division between rich and poor in her county was a fine one; everyone worked for the benefit of the community, from the lowest to the highest. Her father, still one of the finest bowmen and lancers her county had ever known, was equally at home in the treacherous mountains and forests of Woren County, where the hard and uncompromising hills yielded their trees only at great

expense of labour, and seldom without cost. The great trees, once cut down, had to be sectioned

and dragged by hand, sometimes twenty miles and more, up and down the steep, narrow valleys

and ravines.

There was a deep and stubborn pride in the labours of those of Woren County. T’li’s mother was known widely not only for her great skill with looms of every known description, but for the exotic dyes she and her handmaidens created. The source of most of these was a mystery, even to her own family. T’li knew from hints, and from experience, that many of these came from rare plants and mineral deposits, and had heard rumour that they had a variety of other sources . . . but beyond this sketchy information were specifics that even she, youngest daughter of the Thane’s wife, was not privy to. All she knew of it was that her mother and her mother’s handmaidens

would be gone, sometimes for days or weeks at a time, returning at the oddest hours, when the

work of pressing, mixing, concentrating and diluting the dyes would begin; work that sometimes

lasted for many days.

Life had been hard and uncompromising for the young T’li. Since she could walk, she’d had some form of responsibility or another. First it was tending geese, herding them along with a long switch, from their pens to the marsh behind the castle where they fed, and home again. As soon as she was old enough, it was tending goats and sheep, herding, milking, shearing, birthing their young, and salting their flesh at slaughter. Then it was weaving, drawing water, learning the arts of food preservation and preparation, of healing, and of war . . .

She was fourteen years of age when her parents sent her away to join Udin’s reserve army.

Soldiering was a way of life for those of her clan, both men and women. The other counties, being comparatively wealthy, had no such custom. To them, the women of Woren County were masculine and uncouth, with few or no redeeming qualities. A common joke amongst their neighbours stated that, were a Woren County man’s plough horse to expire from overwork, then he would put his wife or daughters in the harness. The joke was lost on those of Woren County, as they had little arable farmland; theirs were mostly small vegetable gardens which dotted the rocky hills like patches of moss, and were tended by hand. Most of them, T’li included, had never seen a plough horse.

Now considered an adult, she was black haired, with black eyes bearing a slightly oriental cast; a feature common to many of the Udin. Though shorter than many Udin women, she was well knit in the frame, strong without sacrificing any of her feminine attributes, and would have been

found very attractive, were it not for her ill fitting uniform. Her parents were unable to afford

proper gear to fit her stature, so an old uniform, donated by one of her three older brothers, was

altered to fit her form as best as could be.

When her impending departure had been announced, her father the Thane had assured T’li that she would finish her training while in Otar, and resume her duties upon her return; it was thought that her absence would be less than a year. But the Udin army had been unusually successful against the Talimari far to the south, and so the reservists were kept in Otar, waiting for a call to arms that never came.

Unfortunately, those in charge of the reservists were an ill mannered, irresponsible lot, more concerned with renewing old acquaintances and carousing than with assuming their duties, and the reservists were left to either waste their time in idleness at the campsites, or shirk their duties altogether, following their superiors’ bad example.

None of the reservists were from Woren County. Most were from the counties Myrrinlagh and Brhynagal, coastal counties both, and having acquired the well deserved bad reputation of their port cities, where gambling, vice, corruption, fornication, prostitution, and every other low

occupation thrived.

Their army was supposedly occupying this land of Otar. But in truth, as she learned after the first few days, the Otari merely tolerated their presence, and that of the Talimari when they arrived periodically as well. The Otari were neutral where the Udin and Talimari were concerned, choosing neither side as allies. And neither the Udin nor the Talimari wished to upset this relationship, because without the Otari’s goodwill, neither Udin nor Talimar possessed the

resources to wage war over the vast distance between their two countries.

Otar was the only one of the three countries who mined and made artifacts from steel. Their weapons and their training were far superior to their neighbours. But they were not interested in

conquering their neighbours, or in taking what didn’t belong to them, or in fighting over

irreconcilable differences in religious faith. The Udin and the Talimari, however, were bent on

eradicating each other’s beliefs.

They were therefore bent on eradicating each other.

Upon arriving in Otar, eager to continue her training, and perhaps join the fight to the south, young T’li had noticed straightaway a complete lack of order or discipline amongst her fellow

soldiers, as they soon spent much of their time frequenting the homes of their friends, or else

indolently squandering their time in the local taverns. Their small tenant farms near the sea had a

dishevelled look, as their tenders only half heartedly attempted to maintain them.

The taverns were almost the only overt sign that Otar had any sort of trade or commerce with her neighbours. These were owned, run, and managed by merchants from a far off island called Brannigwaith, to the west of Otar. Many believed that these people had once been sea pirates, who, after generations of exile, had turned to commerce, rather than war. Whether there was truth in this or no, those from Brannigwaith were close mouthed about their roots, and ran their taverns with a disturbing waiting watchfulness. Stranger still was the connection between those of Brannigwaith and Otar; the Otari freely let the tavern owners go about their business. What business arrangement lay between the two, none from Udin could say.

Feeling betrayed and abandoned, T’li had tried to keep up her training on her own, and to her humiliation and dismay, had to endure the derision and ridicule of her companions for doing

so. Angry, lost, and alone, she pursued her duties with unflagging diligence, and patrolled the

castle where she was billeted, unflaggingly, in accordance with her training. At first, the castle’s

occupants were friendly enough, some of them waving to her as she walked the walls, trying to

draw her into some activity or simple conversation. But she remained aloof, and was soon ignored altogether as though she were as much a familiar and uninteresting fixture as the walls themselves.

The distance from her comrades only increased over time as a series of ugly incidents served to isolate her completely. In the end, the only thing she had left to look forward to was leaving this place and returning home.

The first incident occurred in the fall nearly a year after T’li’s arrival. Her captain and two of his companions had returned from a tavern late one night, very much intoxicated and singing

boisterously. Fifteen years old, ignorant of what such men were capable of in their drunken state,

she had accosted them angrily.

‘What is the meaning of this, returning at such an hour and acting like a bunch of common

brigands? Small wonder the Otari don’t fear us as they should! I can scarcely believe that you

represent the same army who made the Talimari take to their heels.’

The captain listened to her tirade, leaning on the shoulders of his two comrades. With a drunken leer, he said to his friends, ‘I think it’s time this little tart was taught the difference between a man and a woman. What say we teach her a lesson and break her in, eh lads?’

‘Aye, the little bitch is always railing about her lack of swordsmanship. Perhaps we should show her how to put a sword to proper use,’ said one companion.

‘She needs to be punished for her insolence,’ said the other. ‘Perhaps a good tonguelashing is in order.’ The three laughed drunkenly at this, and began moving towards her.

Out of her depth, not realising their intent, T’li, backed away, hand on the hilt of her sword as they approached her, making her captain laugh sarcastically.

‘That’s not a sword, lassie!’ he said, pulling out his member, to her shock and disgust. ‘This is a sword!’

Grimacing with affronted anger and disgust, she turned to leave. But her captain had other plans. The three surrounded her; began shoving and taunting her.

‘Leave me be!’ she shouted, pulling away from them, afraid now. Though she had drawn her glaive defensively, her captain approached until the point of her sword was at his throat. With

a vicious swing of his arm, he knocked the glaive out of her hand. The sword was a treasured

family heirloom, and she heart turned over painfully as she heard it clatter across the flagstones.

Without knowing how she got there, she found herself stretched out on the ground, stunned,

tasting blood in her mouth. Her captain had dealt her as hard a backhand as he would to any man. It wasn’t until they were on her, pulling her leggings to her ankles that she wailed in disbelief and

began struggling wildly. Overpowered, forced face down with her captain’s fist in her hair cruelly pulling her head back, she felt a stabbing pain as he tried to enter her. Then 

The hand in her hair was gone, as was the weight on her back. Turning over, sobbing with shock and humiliation, hastily pulling her torn clothes back on, she noticed a pair of sturdy legs standing by her head. Standing over her was a young man she had seen, but had never spoken to. He was Erin, eldest son and heir to the Castle of Hurkin.

Her captain lay a few feet away, blood coursing from his mouth and face where Erin had kicked him. His two companions were pinned against the wall of the courtyard by a pair of the castle’s guard, knives at their throats.

‘Are you able to stand?’

For a moment, she could only stare up at his proffered hand dumbly through a blur of tears. At his call, a maid came running down the stair, waiting breathlessly for his orders.

‘Uman, take this girl to my sister, Rhian. Fetch a nurse and find out if these three . . . gentlemen . . . have compromised her.’

Trying to regain her composure, pointedly ignoring his hand, T’li angrily got to her feet. ‘I need no man to see to my welfare!’ she shouted, trying to control her sobbing, wiping at the blood on her mouth.

But as she met his stern look, all defiance deserted her, and she had to lower her gaze. Those eyes! They were as fiercesome as staring down the shaft of a drawn bow!

‘You will do as I tell you,’ he said in a voice of gentle admonition.

His words turned her insides to a confused tangle. Every line of him, every nuance of his voice, spoke of authority; his power of command. Yet she sensed that he set this aside to speak with her, that he was speaking to herself, directly.

Without realising how it had happened, she found something fundamental within herself, her position in Udin society, altogether missing, though it would take her some time to realise that

fact. Or that from this moment on it was being replaced by something else entirely. More than ever, and never more than at that moment, she found herself cast adrift in a land full of strangers, with strange ways and customs.

Feeling numb, neither questioning nor yet understanding why she obeyed this man, she retrieved her sword and sheathed it, feeling less like a soldier than she ever had, and imagined that she could see and feel the disappointment that would have been in her father’s eyes, had he been

witness to this sorry spectacle.

-

As the maid led her away, T’li’s knees started feeling weak and rubbery as shock began to set in. But she set her jaw and followed in Uman’s wake, trying to control the cold, shaky feeling that had her by the heart. The maid was leading her to a part of the castle high up on the west side, facing the sea. With a sinking feeling, T’li realised that they were approaching the quarters of the owners of Hurkin Castle. Knocking quietly on one of the doors, the maid, Uman, said confidingly, ‘Don’t be surprised if Erin dispatches those three. He has said often that your captain has the manners and aspect of a pig.’

T’li stared, momentarily astonished by the offhand frankness of this remark from a servant, and was about to say something when the door was opened.

‘Yes?’ It was Rhian, the elder of Erin’s two younger sisters. She was a head taller than T’li, and carried herself with a disarming relaxed dignity. T’li was uncomfortable in the presence of women like her, because she felt acutely unattractive and unfeminine. Rhian was both elegant and beautiful, with intelligence in her grey blue eyes and perfect face. As always, her chestnut brown hair was worn up in a way that would have seemed severe in another; instead, she appeared orderly, controlled, yet absolutely without a trace of harshness or vanity.

‘M’lady,’ said Uman with a quick curtsy, ‘your brother Erin has sent this . . . er . . . girl to

you. Her captain and two of his men attacked her and may have compromised her. I am to fetch a

nurse straightaway.’

A look of anger flashed across Rhian’s countenance as she digested this along with the girl’s appearance; like her brother, Erin, her look was so intense that T’li flinched, suddenly afraid.

‘Come,’ said Rhian, taking the girl by the arm and dismissing the maid. ‘I will get you ready to see the nurse. Your name is T’li, is it not?’

Allowing herself to be drawn inside, hand clutched to her face, she nodded. T’li had never set foot in the private chambers of Hurkin Castle’s owners, and she was unused to the sight of such

luxury; her parents’ castle was spartan by comparison, having spare wooden furnishings and fewer and smaller windows because of the cold northern winters; and wood was hard to come by in Woren County. Rhian’s chambers, along with their brightly coloured tapestries, enormous

fireplace, illustrious furniture and other trappings, had tall bay windows of leaded glass with a

spectacular view of the lowlands and ocean. At that fleeting, unexpected glimpse of the ocean,

once more T’li found herself wishing with an almost physical pain for the sight of white sails on

the moonlit sea.

When they reached the bedchamber, Rhian led the girl directly to a bed of such luxury that she was wholly unaware of Rhian’s pitying look.

‘All right now,’ Rhian said, turning the girl around. ‘Let’s get you out of these ’

T’li balked, chagrined. ‘What are you doing?’

In a stern voice, Rhian said, ‘Nurse is coming. We’ll need you out of those clothes so that you may be examined. Don’t argue with me!’

Under Rhian’s emphatic direction, it didn’t occur to Tli to disobey, and she was soon undressed and standing in the middle of the room naked, feeling absolutely mortified as Erin’s sister looked her over.

‘Some soldier you are!’ she said with wry humour. ‘You’re hardly more than a child! Here, come sit upon my bed. Nurse will be here shortly.’ She left T’li alone a moment, and returned with a wet cloth. Sitting beside the girl, she said, ‘Here, take your hand away. Let me see your lip. Ah h h, that’s a nasty cut. Well, hold this cloth to it and lay back. No, your things are fine where they are. Just lay there and relax. You’re shaking like a leaf.’

For several long moments, T’li wished she would be given something to cover herself with, but if Rhian noticed her discomfort, she ignored it. The nurse finally arrived and immediately began examining the girl’s lip and maidenhead as Rhian looked on. Fighting back tears, T’li stared

at the ceiling, wishing more than ever that her ordeal was over, and that she was going home.

‘Well . . . you are fortunate in this at least . . . you were not penetrated,’ said the nurse. She shook her head, clicking her tongue. ‘Men!’ To Rhian, she said, ‘Have her bathe, and put her to bed for a day or two. Her absence will further shame those . . .’ she make it abundantly clear that an unladylike oath was on her tongue, not to be uttered in Rhian’s presence.

When the nurse had left, Rhian took T’li’s hand. ‘Come. We’ll bathe together, you and I. Leave your things where they are. I’ll have someone wash the blood out of them. Steady now! Shall I fetch someone to carry you?’

T’li flinched at this, and tried her best to conceal how giddy with shock she was.

-

One of Hurkin Castle’s finest features was running hot water. Rhian began filling the enormous oak and brass tub as T’li watched in wonder, holding the bloodied cloth to her mouth.

‘You don’t have to stand there,’ Rhian said, smiling. ‘Why don’t you get in? Go on.’ T’li did so, apprehensively, being unaccustomed to such luxury. As she sat in the bath, she noticed the starlit sky through the open window, and realised again how late it was, and suddenly felt very tired and empty. Rhian undressed, untied her hair, and got in the other end of the tub, watching the girl with concern.

‘Here, turn around. Let me wash your hair.’ T’li did as she was told, and found herself laying in the water with her head pillowed on Rhian’s thighs.

‘You certainly are the quiet one,’ Rhian said, taking the cloth from her and examining the inside of T’li’s lip. ‘It’s stopped bleeding. But I’m afraid you’re going to have a fat lip for a few days.’ She discarded the cloth and began working the girl’s hair into a rich lather with scented soap. Playfully, she put a dab on the end of T’li’s nose, making her smile involuntarily. ‘That’s much better! You’re a very pretty girl when you smile.’

‘I’m not pretty,’ she replied reflexively, trying not to smile, wiping the soap off her nose.

Rhian laughed, a sound like music to T’li. ‘So, you have a voice after all. But, yes you are. Pretty, that is.’ She began rinsing T’li’s hair. Suddenly, she frowned. ‘Young lady, when was the last time you bathed?’

T’li was utterly at a loss for words. When she did wash, which was very seldom, it was in a stream in the woods, to the east of the castle.

‘Ugh! And I thought that smell had rubbed off on you from those dirty vermin! Well, you shall be clean, at least for the time being. I don’t see how you can stand yourself like that.’

Rhian’s indignance softened when she noticed T’li’s hurt look, and she said in a kinder tone, ‘As nurse suggested, you will spend a few days here, with me.’ She paused, thoughtfully, washing the last of the soap from T’li’s hair. ‘I have seen you often, walking the walls alone, and watching for some sign of your people’s ships. Why don’t you mix with your fellows? Or are you being punished?’

Not looking at Rhian, she replied, ‘I’m the only one here from Woren County. The others . . . they don’t like us . . . me.’ T’li grew silent once more after this remark, thinking herself transparent and weak.

But Rhian seemed to have some knowledge of T’li’s distress, comprehension and understanding making her momentarily distant as she mulled over the girl’s words.

‘I see,’ she said finally. ‘Well, you are in Otar, and will find that such conduct does not go

unpunished. Here, sit up. I’m going to drain the tub. A bath is better enjoyed with clean water,

don’t you think?’

-

For the following two days, T’li was baffled by Rhian’s solicitousness; being treated with such gentle words and kindness made her very uncomfortable, and only helped to make her long all

the more for home. She wept that first night, as Rhian helped her to get ready for bed. To her

lasting shame, she had fallen asleep in Rhian’s arms, unable to stem the grief that seemed to have

her by the throat.

-

Still reticent about making or having friends in this place, she resumed her lonely vigil after a few days, patrolling the castle once more and keeping to herself. But, goaded by the memory of Rhian’s gentle admonitions, she bathed more often in the icy water of the stream.

To her surprise, mystification, and relief, her captain and his men were relocated someplace else, and she was left alone. In fact, she wondered if all the Udin soldiers had been banished from Hurkin Castle altogether . . .

-

One day, a few weeks after she was attacked, she was bathing in one of the stream’s deep pools, juddering in the icy water. Having no towel, she had to get out and stand for a while, sluicing the water from her body in an attempt to dry herself enough to put her clothes back on. When she was finally half dry, leaning over to one side to keep her hair from dripping on her clothes, she heard footsteps. Grabbing her clothes, holding them before her, she stood as though rooted as Erin approached her directly.

‘Miss, this is hardly a good idea,’ he said in the same gently admonishing tone he had used before. ‘You’re either going to catch your death of pneumonia, or you may suffer a repeat

performance at the hands of your so called comrades. And next time, you might not be so lucky.

Kindly dress yourself.’

If he had seen her standing there naked, or if her nudity affected him at all, he didn’t show it. Strangely, she was less embarrassed than she was intimidated by his presence, though he

appeared as relaxed and straightforward as his sister. There was something in his confidence and

bearing that made her feel acutely out of her depth. Or was it his strong features, and blue grey

eyes that watched her with knowledge and . . . slight amusement?

When she had dressed herself behind some bushes and had come out again to stand before him, he said, ‘Rhian does not approve of your situation. She has charged me with finding some sort of remedy, however small. Will you accompany me?’

Frowning, watching him askance as he led her out of the woods and towards the castle, she

ventured a question.

‘Why is Rhian . . . well . . . why is she being so . . .’ she fumbled around unsuccessfully for words, making him smile.

‘Your situation has not gone unnoticed, either by Rhian, or ’ he concluded almost reluctantly, ‘by myself.’

‘Where are you taking me?’

His smile became more complex. ‘To meet a friend.’

-

Waiting for them in the courtyard where the soldiers trained was a man T’li recognised. And feared. He was a grizzled veteran named Arzson, Hurkin Castle’s weaponsmaster. Erin and his brother Jaspin had trained under Arzson’s steely gaze and lethal blade, as had most of the castle’s guard.

Arzson was not overly tall, but he was hard muscled and compact, his shaved, bullet shaped head like a lump of scarred gristle. She approached the old veteran with her heart in her mouth. This was a man who was spoken of with awe and fear by her fellow soldiers. He was said to have killed more than one of his own men out of hand for lax or unseemly behaviour. When she was standing before him, heart in her mouth, he put out his hand.

‘Your sword,’ he said, simply, in an unexpectedly quiet tenor voice. Looking a question at Erin, she drew her glaive from its scabbard and handed it to the weaponsmaster. He examined it closely, checked its heft and balance with deceptively easy skill.

‘A fine piece,’ he said respectfully. ‘Norinberg was a fine artisan.’

T’li stared. ‘You knew of him?’

The weaponsmaster huffed. ‘Knew of him? I knew the man well, years before you came into this world. Or this one,’ he said, inclining his head towards Erin, who smiled in return.

‘Arzson,’ said Erin to T’li with an unreadable look, ‘is going to train you daily in the art of swordsmanship.’ He bowed to the old veteran. ‘I leave you to it.’

Afraid of being left alone with the old veteran, she watched Erin’s retreating back, feeling for some reason as though he was abandoning her.

Clearing his throat uncomfortably, Arzson said quietly, ‘I have never trained a . . . that is . . .’

T’li could feel her ears turning crimson. She knew all too well how the Otar felt about women in uniform. Arzson was probably struggling with a situation he found considerably distasteful.

Speaking quickly, the veteran said, ‘Erin has charged me with your training, but has said that if you come to harm, he will likely have my head.’

Relieved, surprised, she thought she properly understood the weaponsmaster’s discomfort now. How could he properly train her without some risk? Grimly, she faced him.

‘If I am injured, sir, then so be it. I will not have another punished for my lack.’

Arzson relaxed immediately, and a gleam of respect, and something else that T’li knew

instinctively had to do with Erin, came into his eyes.

‘That is well. Shall we begin?’

So began her training in earnest. And for the time following, though she was still homesick

. . . she was not as lonely and without direction.

-

Two months later, T’li woke to a dismal grey day. It was in the middle of the week . . . a day that Rhian often took her horseback riding.

Their first time out, Rhian had watched with frank amusement as T’li sat on her mount, gripping the reins, white knuckled, awe and reverence on her face for the old nag she rode, utterly without skill. One of her childhood dreams was to ride a horse into battle, like one of the heroes of legend, though riding a horse as a leisurely activity was for her no less exciting. Under Rhian’s quiet scrutiny and gentle direction, she was soon, quite unconsciously, developing no small skill in horsemanship.

She wrapped the blankets more tightly around herself, staring morosely out the open, shutterless window of the hayloft where she slept. The rain fell heavily and slanted with the cold October wind. They wouldn’t be riding today.

She managed to doze off for awhile, but wakened, startled. Someone was coming up the ladder, and she reached for her sword reflexively. To her relief, and complete surprise, a familiar head popped up at the top of the ladder.

‘T’li?’

T’li rose, and helped Rhian climb onto the deck of the hay  loft. Slightly out of breath, Rhian smiled lightly and handed T’li something tied in a cloth. Unwrapping the bundle, the smell of fresh biscuits and bacon, still warm, wafted into T’li’s nostrils, making her realise that she was

very hungry.

‘Well?’ said Rhian with a laugh, ‘don’t just stand their gawking. Let’s find somewhere to sit, and break our fast.’

They sat across from one another on bales of hay, set to either side of the hayloft door which was high atop the barn at the back, using another bale set on edge for a table. The shutters to the door were open, and Rhian considered the farm below them as they ate their breakfast of fresh biscuits, fried bacon, cheese, butter, sliced apple, and wine. With a smile, she tossed some scraps to the pigeons who nested on the barn’s rafters.

‘The weather will be turning cold soon.’

T’li sighed, watching several raincloaked herdsman driving the sheep out to pasture, their bells clanking dully.

Well used to T’li’s quiet, sombre nature, now, Rhian poured them both some more wine. ‘How is your leg?’

T’li had to smile, wanly. Having gotten a little too adventurous, she had tried jumping her horse over a low hedge. Unknown to her, there was a shallow ravine on the other side, and horse and rider had taken a bruising tumble.

‘It’s fine,’ she said untruthfully. It was still sore, and she had difficulty walking without a limp.

‘Well,’ said Rhian tactfully, with a smile, ‘you’ll look first now, won’t you.’ Rhian’s smile was so kind and knowing that T’li couldn’t help but respond.

‘Why don’t you sleep in one of the farmhouses?’ asked Rhian when they finished. ‘There’s no need for you to sleep in the barn.’

T’li shrugged, not meeting her eye.

Knowing that look now, understanding what it meant, Rhian reached out, took T’li by the hands. ‘Come. Get your things.’

T’li looked up in surprise. ‘M’lady?’

Rhian made a face. ‘Don’t get formal with me, Miss Woren. Come along.’ Pulling up her hood, and wrapping her raincloak about herself, she headed for the ladder. A moment later, T’li followed, shouldering her backpack.

She balked when she realised they were heading towards the castle itself. Slowing her pace, Rhian took her firmly by the hand and pulled her along. ‘Come along. And stop looking like that! You look like a prisoner being led to the gallows.’

Rhian led her through the servants quarters to a room just off the kitchens. As they had passed through, several of the servants had looked up from their work in surprise, both at Rhian’s

presence and that of T’li.

‘This room used to belong to an old, old cook, many a long year ago,’ Rhian explained. ‘He was crippled up with arthritis, and had a great deal of trouble getting around. I’ll have a bed and some furniture brought for you. Isn’t this much warmer than practically sleeping outside? I mean, I would much prefer it if you would stay with me. But since you won’t, I’ll meet you halfway. I forbid you to sleep in the barn any longer, however . . . there is no reason for it.’

As usual, T’li was at a loss for words when her welfare was doted upon, and made very

uncomfortable by it. She felt so out of place amongst these people and their strange ways . . . like a useless freeloader. The fact that the servants of this castle did the sort of chores she was expected to do at home did not sit well with her either . . . without meaning to, Rhian made her to feel as rustic and uncouth as her neighbours in the north did purposely. But she did as she was asked, and slept that night and many after in comparative comfort.

-

During the winter of that year, Erin’s brother, Jaspin, returned from abroad. Jaspin was taller, leaner, and darker than his older brother, and there was a meanness about his eyes and mouth, even of his short, black beard.

The first T’li knew of his presence, she was practicing with her sword in the courtyard, slipping occasionally on the unevenly frozen slush. She was wearing a fur lined cape that had been given to her by Rhian, who had seen the girl shivering on the battlements, having no proper winter

clothing. Unknown to her, the cloak had belonged to Erin, who had his sister shorten it for T’li and present it to her. Jaspin, who had chanced upon T’li’s presence in the courtyard, recognised the cloak at once, and watched her with frank curiosity, until she noticed him standing on the stair above her. Fixing her with his gaze, he began descending the stair. Something in his manner sent a thrill of fear down her spine, and she suspected that he was some assassin, sent by her former captain.

‘Ah, so my brother has a wench who enjoys playing about with swords,’ he said with a grin that chilled her to the bone, accompanied by a cold and unsettling feeling of déjà vu.

‘I am no man’s wench,’ she retorted, trying to keep her voice steady.

He laughed at this. ‘No? All the better, then. Allow me to instruct you in some of the finer points of . . . swordsmanship.’

Sidling away from him, back to the wall, sword upraised, she replied, ‘Erin dealt with the last three who tried, sir.’

‘Did he?’ laughed Jaspin, his eyes becoming hard. ‘Well, if you are not his wench, then what are you?’ He was coming within sword range now, hand on the pommel of his own.

T’li was momentarily at a loss for words. She could not state that she was a friend, or even a guest for that matter. Backed into a corner now, her blade was less than a yard from Jaspin’s chest. ‘If you are indeed Erin’s brother, you will come no closer, sir.’

Relishing this game, he replied with mock surprise, ‘Oh? And why not? My brother and I share everything. Didn’t he tell you? And I do mean everything.’

Something in his tone, and in his manner, caused her to blurt, ‘That is untrue. Erin is a gentleman.’

Jaspin burst into laughter at this, and drew his sword. ‘Well, in that at least, you are correct. I am no gentleman. And . . .’ he raised his sword, its tip scant inches from her face, ‘I seldom ask for what I want. Usually . . .’ he eyed her in an inappropriate manner, ‘I take it. Willing or no.’

Maddeningly, she couldn’t control her fear, and her hands were shaking uncontrollably. But she struck his sword away, not intending to be abused so easily this time. Unfortunately, the instant

their blades made contact, she knew herself to be dangerously overmatched. She could scarcely

move his sword, even with all her strength.

‘Come now,’ he said, toying with her, repeatedly batting her sword aside, advancing, ‘you are no soldier. You would do better ’

Jaspin!’ It was Rhian, who was standing at the entrance to the courtyard. ‘You will leave her be!’

He betrayed only a flicker of irritation. ‘Begone, my dear sister,’ he said without pausing in his torment of T’li. ‘It is unseeming that you should be so meddlesome.’ To T’li’s dismay, Rhian quickly turned and left. Alone with Jaspin now, she became desperate enough to move away

from the wall and square off with him, taking the grip of her glaive in both hands.

‘Ah, so you’re stupid enough to try my patience. My good friend, your former captain, has told me what an impertinent little slut you are.’

Her eyes went wide at this. Thinking he meant to kill her, she attacked him in desperation, and for an impossible moment, to his unconcealed surprised, drove him back a few yards. Suddenly furious, he began attacking in earnest. Fending him off, she found herself trying only to keep him from dislodging her sword. With a final vicious blow, he caught her off balance, knocking her to the ground. In an instant, he was standing over her, foot on her neck.

‘Now, you arrogant little whore, you will beg me for your life, before I cut you to pieces and feed you to the dogs! When you affronted my friends, you affronted me!’

She was able to turn her head and eyes only enough to get a good look at his face, which was suffused with a look she would never come to understand.

Jaspin was mad.

T’li tried to reach for her sword, which had fallen by her hand. If only she could move another inch . . . dimly, she heard footsteps, though they barely registered . . .

There was a deafening sound, like a hammer slamming onto an anvil. Jaspin’s sword was

suddenly gone. After a moment, she could hear it clattering on the ground several yards away

before coming to rest. Jaspin was staring in open mouthed amazement at someone T’li couldn’t

see.

‘If you have harmed her, I will kill you.’ She didn’t recognise the voice at first. But when Jaspin removed his foot, she struggled to her knees, panting hoarsely.

It was Erin. But not the Erin she knew. There was murder in every line of his body.

‘Get your sword.’

It took her a moment to realize that it was she, not Jaspin, he was talking to. His eyes were locked on his brother’s as though looking only for some small excuse to separate Jaspin’s head from his shoulders. She retrieved her sword and got unsteadily to her feet.

‘Go to Rhian’s chambers and stay there until I send for you. I need to have a word with my brother. Alone.’

-

By the time she got to Rhian’s door, she was shaking so badly that she could barely stand. Rhian was standing by her open door, and drew the girl inside quickly. Once inside, T’li’s experience fully caught up with her. Placing a trembling hand over her mouth, she muttered, ‘M’lady . . . I’m sorry . . . I think I’m going to be sick . . .’ Rhian led her into the lavoratory, where the girl knelt over the commode and began heaving the contents of her stomach.

‘So,’ said Rhian ironically, sighing deeply, resignedly, ‘you have finally met my brother Jaspin.’

T’li began looking for something to wipe her face with, and Rhian handed her a wet cloth.

‘Why did he do that to me?’ she wailed, ‘I have never met the man before.’

‘Jaspin is who he is,’ said Rhian, regret in her voice. ‘There is nothing there to understand. But you are going to have to be more careful from now on. You are not to be left unescorted. Do you understand me?’

T’li looked up at her uncomprehendingly.

‘You will have to trust me in this,’ said Rhian. ‘Please, do as I ask, or more trouble will come of this. He may try to kill you, if ever he gets you alone.’

-

It was during her second year in Otar, in the middle of a cold, snowy winter. T’li was escorted often by one of Arzson’s men, or by Uman the maid. Uman disliked T’li intensely, thinking her uncouth and ill mannered, both for her unladylike attire, and for taking up the sword. But she did her job diligently, because it was Rhian who asked it of her.

T’li was sparring with Arzson, who only earlier had grudgingly admitted that she was making progress. As they practiced, a cry went up from the castle wall that she paid no heed to, until a single word penetrated her concentration.

‘ ships!’

‘Hai! Where do you think you’re going?’

She had practically thrown her sword away in her excitement, and was running as fast as her legs would carry her, up several flights of stone stairs. When she gained the castle wall, she thought her lungs and her heart would burst.

Her hands shaking with excitement, she fumbled her sword into its scabbard. Yes, there were ships coming! And they were coming from the south! She was finally going home!

Her face flushed with excitement, she flew down the stair again to get her few belongings. On the way, she passed Rhian in the courtyard, and stopped momentarily.

‘T’li? What on earth ’

‘I’m going home!’ T’li shouted, jumping and looking as happy and carefree as a child. Rhian watched her with a lopsided grin, never having seen the girl happy before.

‘Well, give me a kiss good bye. And don’t forget me, if you should ever return here again one day.’

T’li stopped for a moment, suddenly aware of all the things left unsaid between them . . . and now there was no time . . .

‘Go,’ said Rhian with a fond smile.

And she did.

4

Her belongings were gone! At the same instant T’li’s mind registered this, some elusive sense caught the retreating presence of an intruder just beyond the doorway. Caught in a moment’s hesitation, she checked again for her belongings . . . but a cursory glance told her what she already knew- that they were indeed gone!

At once, her heart was seized by a fey, black mood, a burning anger and sickened feeling towards the perverse, petty mind that had enacted this last parting cruelty. Two long years of being baited and looked down upon by her fellows; two long years of enduring Otar’s citizens’ black charity despite Rhian’s attempts to shield her; two long years of having her nose rubbed in the contempt of her own people towards Woren County’s women in military service; two long years of black, bleak waiting, while her young heart withered and the light in her eyes began to fade: this may explain why she pushed all caution aside and chose pursuit. She had been hurt, again and again and again! Well, she was not about to suffer the lifelong hurt and humiliation of having her personal belongings and some very old family heirlooms and keepsakes taken from her! Not today, and not without a fight!

Reaching the door, she heard someone walking rapidly down the hall beyond. Taking a long dagger from her belt, bent forward in a hunter’s crouch, she began following the elusive source of the footfalls. They led her deeper and deeper beneath the castle, and eventually, she found herself in the cellars. There was one staircase in the centre, dimly illuminated by torchlight, and it led to somewhere below. Oddly, this was the one spot into which T’li had never ventured, thinking it led to nowhere of importance. But her quarry had gone this way; there was no other. It occurred to her that she was in danger, but because she was the pursuer, she mistakenly assumed that the advantage was hers. She gained the stair and began descending, peering into the total darkness, dagger poised and ready.

Slowly her eyes adjusted to the gloom. There were cobwebs and old wooden crates and barrels scattered carelessly about; evidently, this place had once been used for storage. And in the centre of the floor, a wooden trapdoor stood open.

Approaching cautiously, she peered into the black pit, trying to make sense of the noise coming from below. And then-

-her head ringing from the aftershock of being struck, she found herself foundering, trying to breathe!

It took her a moment to realise she was under water, and in total darkness. She began to panic, being unable to find the surface, or even orient herself to know which way was up. At once, it occurred to her to blow a little air out of her mouth, and use her hand to feel which way the bubbles were going-

She was upside down, going in the wrong direction! Fighting her way to the surface, she began choking on the stagnant water she had taken into her lungs. Even when she broke the surface and began fighting for air, she couldn’t get her breath. And her heavy leather hauberk and sword were dragging her down. For the second time in her life, all hope of saving herself driven from her mind, she began yelling for help.

Unknown to her, above ground and outside the castle, all was utter chaos. The ships carrying the retreating Udin army had arrived, and there was a mad scramble to evacuate before the Talimari came in hot pursuit. She didn’t know it, but Uman had gone to investigate the confusion.

It proved fortunate for T’li’s continued existence that a Udin general had asked for a bottle of the 1132 vintage, wishing to take with him a small reminder of Otar’s hospitality, in case fate prevented his eventually returning to enjoy that country’s fare in the future. A servant was forthwith despatched to retrieve the desired potable. Unfortunately for the general, he was unable to wait for the servant’s return, and was thereby forced to leave without the wine. Regardless, the servant was otherwise occupied with T’li’s timely rescue.

-

Within hours of the Talimari occupation, Erin, the heir of Otar, was deep in conversation with two Talimari soldiers who had been there before, and who knew the owners of Hurkin Castle well. They were all old friends. Marl and Dein were sitting before a fire, drying their feet, and drinking flagons of white ale with their host, when a servant interrupted, speaking something softly into Erin’s ear.

‘Something wrong, master Erin?’ asked Marl with concern, noticing that his friend had gone very pale.

Unable to conceal his anxiety altogether, Erin replied, ‘Just a slight household emergency. I’ll be back in a few moments. Jaspin and my sisters should be here soon. I sent word that you were coming. Please excuse me.’

-

Once outside, he whispered to the maid, Uman, ‘Please tell me this is a joke!’

She shrugged. ‘Come see for yourself. The little bitch almost drowned. Should we toss her back in, and just forget about her? It seems to have just been an accident, after all . . .’

Erin raised a hand, cutting her off. ‘Don’t be ridiculous! We’ll have to hide her ’

You’ll have to hide her, sir,’ Uman interrupted hastily. ‘No one else will have anything to

do with her. You can fire the lot of us, but you’ll find no one here who is the least bit sympathetic

to that little chit.’

-

Erin found his charge in the cellar sitting on a wooden box, shivering violently, and for the first time looking openly hysterical. When she saw Erin, she rose to her feet, white eyed, and blurted,

‘Why am I detained? I must get to get to the ships before ’

‘They’re gone,’ Erin cut her off.

‘But ’

‘They’re gone,’ he repeated. ‘I’m afraid you have no choice but to remain here.’

Looking like a trapped animal, overcome with grief and dismay, she made an inarticulate noise of anguish and fell to her knees. ‘No! They can’t be gone! They mustn’t! I want to go home. I . . .’ Then, it dawned on her. ‘The Talimari will kill me!’

‘I am well aware of that,’ he replied.

‘Erin,’ said Uman impatiently, ‘your guests are getting too curious. We’re trying to hold them off, but they want to find out what’s going on.’

‘Isn’t that wonderful!’ he muttered ingenuously. ‘They saw my reaction.’ An unpleasant thought crossed his mind. One he was unable to dismiss. Reaching into a pocket, he drew out some money and handed it to Uman.

‘Get rid of her clothes. Have her weapons sent to my chambers. Get her into a dress, even if you have to knock her senseless to do it. Send someone to Father Adrian, and have a marriage certificate drawn up. Get word to my friend Brandon that he has a sister. Get her a wedding ring.’

‘Erin!’ Uman balked, ‘I’ll not do it-!’

‘If you value your hide,’ he told her in a low voice that sent her scurrying, ‘You will do as I tell you! Now go! And bring her to me directly when you’re done’

-

Once again, Father Adrian was struck by the damnable way these people acted morally. Father Black’s words echoed eerily in his mind: “ . . . only a man of God can act with a Moral Conscience . . .”

A marriage certificate?

The lad stirred uncomfortably, wishing to be off. Sighing, Father Adrian opened his desk, found a blank scroll.

‘What is the girl’s full name?’

-

As he made his way to rejoin his guests, Erin’s mind was preoccupied with the matter of how he was going to get word to his parents. He had no idea where they were. To make matters worse, there was the possibility that they might drop in at any time, unannounced.

To further his anxiety, his brother Jaspin and his sisters were already with Marl and Dein, and they watched him enter the room, Jaspin with smug contempt, his sisters with concern. He

crossed to one of the wide leaded glass windows, thinking hard, pretending to look at the falling

snow, and the white laden trees and fields.

‘Is it something bad?’ Marl asked him.

Erin allowed an angry sigh. ‘Perhaps.’

Rhian and his other sister, Gina, approached him from either side, knowing something was up. They knew Jaspin wasn’t to be trusted, and wanted to be prepared to deal with him, should the

need arise. Gina was no taller than T’li, and wore her curly, light brown hair loose about her

shoulders. The antithesis of Rhian, her manner was often that of a spoiled child.

‘Well?’ asked Rhian quietly enough that Jaspin couldn’t overhear, ‘what happened?’

‘My wife, T’li, has fallen into the drainage pit underneath the cellars, and almost drowned.’

Noting the girls’ reaction, Dein got to his feet and approached them.

‘Is there anything we can do?’

Erin shook his head and smiled wryly. ‘I doubt it. There has ’

They all turned as someone was shouting outside in the hallway. A commotion was heard, followed by silence. Then, the doors were opened. T’li walked in, flanked by Uman and Father

Adrian. She was very pale, and avoided everyone’s eyes. The dress Uman had found for her looked a bit too large, Erin thought, making her look smaller than she actually was, and helpless, which couldn’t have been further from the truth. Regardless, Erin couldn’t help but notice, perhaps for the first time, that she was disconcertingly attractive. For the first time, her long black hair was undone and hung about her shoulders; that and her arching black eyebrows made her look as pale and fearful as she felt.

Father Adrian gave Erin an assuring nod, while Uman appeared as though she could barely contain her fear and anger over aiding and abetting this dangerous charade.

Jaspin’s malice was palpable, and he was about to say something when Rhian drew everyone’s attention by going up to him angrily.

‘You were supposed to see to it that the damned trapdoor was fixed! She almost drowned, you idiot! Come on, before Father returns and finds out.’

His anger deflected, Jaspin, allowed himself to be led from the room. Thankfully, he remained silent as he followed Rhian, with Father Adrian at his shoulder and Uman behind them, who scurrying off to preoccupy herself with safer duties.

‘And you!’ said Erin to T’li, not having to feign anger, ‘What possessed you to go down there alone?’

T’li swallowed, unable to think. ‘I ’

Taking her firmly by the hand, noting with relief that she was wearing an appropriate ring, he led her to a couch by the fire, across from his Talimari friends. To the question in Dein’s and Marl’s eyes, he said, ‘My apologies. This is T’li. My wife.’ He sat and drew T’li next to him. Even through her dress, he could feel that she was still cold and shivering.

Dein and Marl stared. ‘It would seem that congratulations are in order,’ Dein said, an ironic stress in his voice. ‘You have married a Udin woman. When did this happen?’

‘Not long ago,’ Erin replied.

T’li shifted uncomfortably. Not surprisingly, she was scared witless by the presence of the Talimari soldiers, and escape, not socializing, was foremost on her mind. Whispering into his ear, she said urgently, ‘Erin, I need to be excused.’

‘Not a chance,’ he replied, so that all could hear. ‘After that little stunt, I’m not letting you out of my sight.’ Leaning back comfortably, he drew her to him in such a way that she had no choice but to put her feet up and lean against him. Anger at his presumption deflecting some of her fear, and unable to do anything but play along, she decided to make the best of the situation, and just watch and listen. Unconsciously, though, she relaxed against him, glad at least that she wasn’t still treading the icy, stagnant water, a breath or two away from drowning.

‘So, where are your parents?’ asked Dein, deciding to change the subject for Erin’s sake. ‘We were hoping to see the old man.’

Erin shrugged. ‘They’re off someplace, as usual. With any luck, they’ve gone to the market in Deacon. The new furs should be coming in soon.’

‘Not soon enough,’ said Gina, joining them. Relishing T’li’s discomfort (if not Erin’s,

having disliked T’li from the start for what she misperceived as the girl’s aloof behaviour), she sat on the end of the couch where she would be in a position to miss nothing. ‘Father promised Mother some new rugs. And the way you two have been carrying on, I shouldn’t be surprised if T’li would be needing a cradle soon.’

T’li went white. ‘I . . . we . . . I don’t think we’re planning on having . . . children . . . so soon.’

‘Oh?’ said Gina with an impish grin. ‘And how do you plan on avoiding that?’ It was common knowledge that birth control had been outlawed years ago, because of Church Doctrine. The only way to avoid getting pregnant for Otari woman was to avoid having sex. T’li ventured a fearful glance at Erin, wondering if she would be forced into doing more than merely acting out the role of being his wife.

Fortunately, Dein and Marl seemed to be under the mistaken impression that they were newlyweds, and that T’li was holding out, for whatever reason.

After a short while, Jaspin returned. ‘In future, do not blame me for such a victim of the Blind Sword of Fate as this,’ he said to Erin, darkly, indicating T’li with an inclination of his head. ‘But, my dear,’ he said, turning his attention and his malice on T’li, ‘what the devil were you doing in the old wine cellar in the first place? And more importantly,’ there was a thinly veiled threat in his voice, directed not entirely at her, ‘how did you manage to get out again?’

‘I’ll tell you what she was doing,’ cut in Rhian, coming to T’li’s defence. ‘She had fallen victim to a bad practical joke. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you, Jaspin?’

There was something in Jaspin’s reaction that got the attention of all but the guests. Angrily, he retorted, ‘Don’t you dare accuse me! It’s not my fault the silly little tart has been poking her nose into every little corner of ’

‘Have a care, Jaspin!’ said Erin, becoming angry himself, as Jaspin was perilously close to committing an unforgivable faux pas. It was obvious Jaspin’s anger was genuine, and had some other source than the game they were playing. Jaspin returned Erin’s look, glare for glare. Rising suddenly, he said, ‘I need some air!’ and turned and left, his cape flying from his shoulders.

Marl cleared his throat uncomfortably. ‘I am sorry, Erin! We seem to have come at a bad time.’

Erin made a dismissing gesture. ‘He’ll come around.’

‘He’s just jealous,’ Gina offered, further complicating the matter.

But Dein nodded seriously at this. ‘My younger brother and I had a similar disagreement over the woman who is now my wife. We haven’t spoken in over four years.’

-

It was very late. Following Erin, after the others had gone to bed, T’li asked, ‘Where are we going?’

Not looking at her, he replied, ‘To my . . . to our chambers. Damn Jaspin! What possessed him to do such a monstrous thing?’ When they arrived and went inside, he closed the door and latched it. T’li looked around uncertainly for a moment.

‘Where am I to sleep?’

Erin removed his cape, and draped it over the back of a chair. ‘With your husband. Where else?’

Afraid, angry, she said, showing the whites under her eyes, ‘I am not sleeping with you.’

He shrugged. ‘Neither of us have any choice. I’m afraid we’re just going to have to make the best of it.’ He sat down, started getting undressed. Without warning, she bolted for the door. Anticipating this, he caught her, none too gently, as she fought wildly to escape, and did so until he got her in bed, restraining her with his own weight. As she lay under him, panting for breath, he said, ‘If you don’t stop, I am going to knock you senseless.’

She did stop. But only to take stock of her situation.

‘Is that marriage contract binding?’

He relaxed his grip. ‘It is.’

Her mouth dropped open in shock. ‘What? Why would you do such a thing?’

‘There wasn’t any choice! As you well know, your presence would have come out any other way, and without me, you’d have had nobody to vouch for you. Unless you’d have preferred to be turned over to your friends. They would’ve killed you out of hand.’

To her relief, accompanied by an odd sense of disappointment, he got off of her, and she lay on her side, watching him as he continued getting ready for bed.

‘Just don’t plan on my bearing your children. I am a soldier of the Udin.’

‘Not for now, if you wish to live,’ he told her as he removed his collar. ‘At present, you are the wife of Erin of the House of Hurkin.’

She looked at his face searchingly, trying not for the first time to read him. ‘Why are you doing this? During my entire stay here, the two of us have hardly exchanged more than a few words. Except for Rhian, your family and your servants have always despised me. Why go to all this trouble, when you could have just turned me over to the Talimari?’

‘We are a peaceful people,’ he replied, ‘as you well know. There is seldom, if any, bloodshed here. There was no reason for you to die. The Talimari would have tortured you. You would have been publicly stripped naked, raped repeatedly, then tied to a post, skinned alive, disembowelled, and finally burned ’

‘I am well aware what my fate would have been, had I been placed in the hands of the Talimari,’ she replied with a shudder, suddenly pale, not looking at him.

‘As well, I have to consider the other possible consequences. Once the Udin return, what would I tell them if I had simply handed you over to the enemy?’

She looked suddenly morose. ‘My own people may decide to try me for desertion.’

‘Then is this not better?’

‘You could have made me a servant,’ she replied darkly. ‘There was no need to humiliate me in front of the enemy!’

‘The servants would not have vouched for you, and you would have run away at the earliest opportunity,’ he replied. ‘And eventually you would have been either discovered or caught ’

‘You don’t know that!’

‘Don’t I!’ It was a statement.

She turned to him angrily, but what she saw made her lower her eyes. Sitting up, she began

undressing. Thinking to torment him a little, she stripped naked and got under the covers. Sighing,

he sat up, unfolded more covers from the bottom of the bed, and lay back down again. The castle was getting very cold at this time of the night as the fires burned low.

On the night table sat a decanter and four goblets. He poured them both a drink.

‘What’s this?’ she asked him suspiciously.

‘Just a bit of liqueur. It’ll help you to sleep.’

She tossed the drink back, choking on the strong liquor, and got underneath the covers, deciding to pretend to fall asleep, planning to make her escape once he had drifted off. But the effects of her near drowning still left her feeling a bit giddy, and she was soon feeling very tired. And it was warm in bed, and very cold everyplace else, and the liquor was spreading its soporific warmth right down to her toes. With an inward sigh, she decided that tomorrow was probably a better time to try.

-

She awoke, thinking strangely that she was home . . . warm and comfortable for the first time since she could remember.

But then, she remembered . . .

She was naked! In bed with Erin! And wrapped around him as though starved for more than just warmth. Opening her eyes, raising her head, she saw that he was still asleep. She thought of

slipping out of bed, until she noticed how cold the air in the room was. Making an angry sound, she buried her head back underneath the covers, lay against his chest.

An unfamiliar feeling hit the pit of her stomach, touching parts of her body that made her quiver involuntarily with anticipated pleasure. She tried to breathe deeply to quell the butterflies in her stomach, and to try to put her feelings in perspective. With an effort, she forced herself to consider her situation. What now? It could be years before her people returned. Peeking from underneath the covers again, she considered Erin for a long time. And thought of the risk he was taking on her account. His reasoning baffled her. They had hardly exchanged two words in the entire time she had been here. In fact, he had often hardly given her more than the odd, condescendingly amused look, she thought. Now, he was placing his life on the line. For her.

Duty! That was something she understood. The Otar were as honour bound as the Udin were warlike. Erin was willing to risk his own life to protect someone who had been his houseguest. Grasping at this, certain she held the answer, T’li thought she understood her situation now.

But, be his wife, and possibly bear his children? That was going too far. Still, it made sense that if she was his wife, she would have to act the part. She sighed. What would happen to her when her people returned? She would no longer be one of them. What did that leave?

She was startled by the sound of a key in the lock. She shook Erin awake.

‘Someone is trying to get in!’ she whispered.

For a moment, he was surprised by her naked form pressed to his side. But then, he smiled. ‘It’s just Rhian. She has the only other key.’

He was right. Rhian slipped in the door in her night dress, accompanied by Gina, who closed and bolted the door behind them. To T’li’s chagrin and mortification, Gina approached their bed with an impish smirk, and whipped their covers off, leaving T’li and Erin nakedly exposed to the frigid morning air.

‘Ha!’ crowed Gina. ‘I knew you couldn’t keep your hands off the little wench!’

Unruffled, and unembarrassed, Erin grabbed back some of the covers and tossed them over T’li, before going to his nightstand and unhurriedly putting on a thick robe. Giving T’li a sardonic look, he said, ‘Aren’t you glad you have these two as sisters now?’

T’li was still scarlet as she wrapped the blankets about her, sitting up and hugging her knees. She couldn’t look at any of them. Oddly, the cold air had left her head spinning, and it took her a few moments to shake off feeling faint.

‘Gina, be nice,’ said Rhian, sitting on the bed beside T’li. ‘She is Erin’s wife, after all.’

‘Surely; that is, until her friends return once more,’ said Gina, who began poking through Erin’s things, demonstrating why Rhian, and not she, had a key to Erin’s room. ‘So, T’li, tell me; did you two try and make a baby last night?’

Without answering, T’li got out of bed with the covers around her, and fled into the bathroom.

‘Just for that,’ said Erin to Gina, ‘you can start the fire going.’

‘Oh, piffle. You know I ’

‘Do it!’ said Rhian in a quiet voice, standing face to face, and a head taller than her sister.

Gina knew that look, and swallowing, moved to do as she was told. Rhian decided to follow T’li,

and see how she was doing.

T’li was sitting on a chair by the bath, staring at nothing. Rhian thought of saying something to cheer the girl up, but her exchange with Gina had momentarily darkened her mood. Instead, she

started the bath going. It took several moments before the hot water reached the tap from a boiler

far below in one of the cellars. T’li was strangely passive as Rhian prompted her out of the

bedsheets and into the bath, making Rhian watch the girl carefully as she got in herself and sat

down.

After a few moments, Gina poked her nose in the door and asked hopefully, ‘Mind if I join you?’

Rhian sighed. ‘Are you going to behave?’

Taking that as a “yes,” Gina dimpled and came in quickly, closing the door behind her.

The bathtub was a large, polished granite oval, about seven feet by five, with a sill to sit on around the circumference. The sides were slanted to provide a comfortable reclining position. Erin had purchased it some four years year before, and his sisters had promptly taken over his bathroom; hence the key in Rhian’s possession.

‘So,’ said Rhian to T’li, ‘shall we talk? Or just enjoy ourselves?’ It was apparent to Rhian that T’li was uncomfortable being in Gina’s presence, but she decided that now was as good a time as any for the two to start getting to know one another.

T’li didn’t want to talk. The bath seemed too hot, and her head was spinning. Noticing something was wrong, Rhian kept conversing with her sister, but her attention was on T’li.

‘Let’s just enjoy ourselves,’ Gina answered for her. ‘Pass me the bath salts.’

‘You always use too much,’ Rhian replied. ‘I’ll do it.’

Unguessed by the two of them, T’li’s world was falling apart, bit by bit, realization by realization. For two long years now, she had been on pins and needles, waiting for the day when she could return home and resume her duties. Her life had been on hold, and now all of her hopes and plans were dashed, possibly forever. She was supposed to have taken over her late grandparent’s castle one day, and come into her own. Instead, she seemed destined to becoming nothing more than a prisoner of circumstance.

She felt a hand on her arm. To her surprise, both of the other girls were watching her with concern.

‘T’li?’ said Rhian.

There was something odd here she couldn’t place. Did Rhian want something from her? Everything looked a little strange, as though the room’s dimensions had become uncertain.

‘Gina,’ said Rhian intently, feeling T’li’s forehead, ‘fetch a physician. I think she must have caught something from the water underneath the cellar.’

T’li barely noticed as Gina left, dressing hurriedly. The last thing she remembered was Rhian yelling for Erin as she lost consciousness.

-

The grey haired woman was back again, bathing T’li with a wet cloth. T’li felt her naked skin tingle as she lay on her back upon clean white sheets. A nurse was standing nearby, holding a small tub of warm water.

‘Ah, you are awake. I am glad to see that your eyes are clear this time. How do you feel?’

T’li had to muster the energy to frown.

‘Who are you?’

The woman’s answering smile was an unreadable blur. ‘Do you not know me? But then, I have spent little time at the castle, and then only to see my family. I am Madame Hurkin, mother of your husband, Erin.’

Taking a better look, forcing her sore eyes to focus, T’li breathed, ‘Ah, I have seen you before . . . I think.’ She took stock of her surroundings, and noticed that the room was unfamiliar. This disturbed her, because she had made it her business to know all of Hurkin Castle. ‘Where . . . ?’

‘You are in my home, and here you will stay, until we discover who has been trying to kill you.’

Some of the cobwebs receded as the woman’s statement sank home. ‘Why do you think that someone has been trying to kill me?’

Madame Hurkin’s visage was guarded as she wrung the cloth out again. ‘Let’s get you turned over. Nurse? A hand, if you please.’ T’li wanted to protest, feeling more defenceless and exposed than ever with her back to any possible threat. But Madame Hurkin’s gentle ministrations soon allayed her fears somewhat.

‘Now,’ said Madame Hurkin, ‘let me tell you what has been happening, as I understand it. First, you were lured into the cellars, were you not?’ T’li’s silence, along with her confusion, made the woman nod. ‘I thought so. Later, you were poisoned, as was my son.’

T’li frowned. ‘The morning I got sick, I had nothing to eat or drink at all.’

‘You drank the poison the night before,’ said Madame Hurkin. ‘It was slow acting . . . and well known to our physicians.’

T’li digested this in silence. Then . . .

‘Erin?’ she blurted.

‘Ah, so you were concerned for him after all.’ T’li felt herself being gently pulled open in an inappropriate place. She tried pushing Madame Hurkin’s hand away, but the woman quickly

removed it, and took the girl’s hand, placing it back on the pillow by her cheek. ‘Sorry, my dear,

just checking to see if you’re still a virgin. If you’re going to be the wife of a son of mine in more

than name, that will have to change. And ’ she leaned close to the girl’s ear, so as not to be

overheard, ‘do not think that I have no right to know about such things! Any child you bear will be successor to my husband. That is no small thing! The future of a kingdom depends on your giving us an heir, and the sooner you do so, the better. Erin avoided coming into his own for far too long, and there were others who have taken advantage of his damned reticence. Your presence here has forced the issue, though I daresay he surprised all of us. Taking you for his wife was an act of genius.’

T’li craned her head to look at the woman. ‘What do you mean?’

Madame Hurkin smiled conspiratorially at her. To the nurse, she said, ‘Leave us.’ The nurse departed with alacrity.

‘You,’ said Madame Hurkin after the nurse’s footsteps had receded down the hall, ‘are an outsider. You have no ties which would hinder this house. Erin would have been free to act, had he lived. Well, no matter. Jaspin will marry you instead.’

So there it was. Erin was dead. And Jaspin . . . the mere thought of being forced to marry him made her feel sick inside. As well, for no reason that she could put into words, T’li felt suddenly vulnerable and exposed, and it had nothing to do with her nakedness. If what Madame Hurkin said was true, then there had been no honour involved in Erin’s taking her as his wife. And if that was true, then he had just been using her. And now, it appeared that Jaspin, his brother, meant to do the same. She suddenly felt empty beyond words, and tired of this conversation.

‘I am sorry, you are not yet up to this,’ said Madame Hurkin. ‘I will leave you to rest now. But remember, the House of Hurkin needs an heir, and soon. When you are united with Jaspin, my

son, let him give you what we all need.’ Then, covering the girl and patting her head, she left.

-

The last thing T’li wanted to do at the moment was think. Instead, she tried to flee into slumber, away from all her problems. But this was not to be. There was a frantic rattle from the doorlock, and someone burst into the room. It was Rhian, with Gina in tow. She was carrying something which turned out to be a bundle of clothes. Raising her head, T’li gaped at them.

‘Come,’ said Rhian, nearly out of breath, ‘we’ve got to get you out of here.’

T’li was not going to be taken from her bed without a struggle. ‘What are you doing? I’m not going anywh ’

‘Oh, yes you are!’ said Rhian brusquely. ‘Gina, give me a hand with her.’

Gina hung back, looking as though she wished she was someplace else. ‘Rhian, this is a stupid idea! If they catch us ’

‘Shut up and bloody move!’ Rhian whispered vehemently.

T’li was too weak to fight them, and they soon had her dressed in warm outdoor clothes.

‘Where  ?’

‘Shush,’ whispered Rhian as they opened the door and led her along, supporting her from either side. As they made their way carefully down the hall, they had to pass an open door. Some people were talking inside a large room there. Watching them until their backs were to the entrance, Rhian and Gina propelled T’li past the open door. Inside she saw Madame Hurkin’s back. She was speaking to someone familiar.

It was Jaspin.

‘What is happening?’ she said when they got her outside and helped her into a waiting carriage. Rhian quickly closed the door when they seated themselves, and banged on the roof twice, signalling the driver to get moving. ‘Who poisoned Erin and myself?’

‘No one,’ Rhian answered in a tight voice.

Her surprise sharpening her senses, T’li took a closer look at Rhian. And Gina. They looked pale and shaken, and their eyes were red, as though they had been weeping. Seeing this, Rhian said into her incomprehension, ‘Erin is missing. I fear he may be dead.’

T’li almost fainted, though not entirely from surprise.

‘I was told that he was most certainly dead. But now, aren’t you going to tell me what’s going on?’

‘There is a conspiracy involving a rival house, as well as our own. It seems you’re not the only Udin to remain behind.’

T’li shook her head. ‘What do you mean? There are others of the Udin here? But why would they try to kill me?’

‘For the same reason that mother and Jaspin want you to have Jaspin’s child. To consolidate power. To become a power, like the Udin and the Talimari. Maybe even to join with one or the other . . . I don’t know.’

Something outside got T’li’s attention, and she leaned closer to the window. The buildings in the distance were familiar. And they were all aflame. The House of Hurkin was no more.

‘You are at war? With whom? Not the Talimari?’

Gina glared at her. ‘All we know is that this is Jaspin’s doing! He had our own family murdered. We’re all that’s left. He planned on having you for himself, but Erin got in the way. Now, he and his fellow conspirators are going to start a war, unless we find a way to stop him.’

‘Without you,’ said Rhian, ‘he’ll be delayed until he can find other means. Udin women are not exactly in ready supply.’

T’li laughed bitterly. ‘Then I was being used. Right from the start.’ She sighed, wishing she could lie down and sleep. ‘It would’ve been better if I’d drowned. Or if the poison had taken me.’

‘Poison?’ asked Gina.

T’li nodded. ‘You know? In the bath . . . ?’

Rhian and Gina exchanged a look. ‘T’li,’ said Rhian, ‘you weren’t poisoned. You were sick. For several days. You caught something from the water you fell into, down underneath in the cellars.’

‘Then why was I brought here?’

‘You were kidnapped, shortly before the castle was attacked! Gina and I followed you all the way here three days ago, which saved us from being caught and murdered with the others. We’ve been hiding at Brandon’s castle.’

‘Who is Brandon?’

Rhian gave her a look. ‘Your surrogate brother. One of Erin’s best friends. That’s where we’re

going now.’

-

Erin, along with Dein and Marl, watched the fire in the distance for a long time before mounting again. Their breath, and the breath of their mounts steamed ominously in the moonlit night.

‘I don’t understand you!’ said Marl angrily to Erin. ‘You should have just let him have the wench, and let us help you put an end to the lot of them. He managed to get her anyway, in the end.’

‘For now,’ Erin replied. ‘But, have a care, Marl. She is my wife, and I will have her back, safe and sound.’

‘Quiet, both of you!’ whispered Dein. ‘They on the move again.’

They were tracking the mercenaries who had sacked and burned the castle and surrounding village. The mercenaries were clearly professionals, and the three were keeping as safe a distance

as possible.

‘Just tell me one thing,’ said Marl as they set out. ‘What put it into your head to marry the girl?’

Erin shrugged. ‘When I weighed all the alternatives, it seemed the only way I could be sure she was safe.’

Dein huffed and shook his head. ‘If you take a woman against her will, you can expect nothing but trouble, my friend.’

-

Brandon was nothing like what T’li was expecting. Nor was his castle. It was smaller than Hurkin castle, and situated within the eaves of a dark forest. Oddly, this castle had no surrounding wall, looking more like a massive, old stone house.

He greeted the three young women as they stepped out of the carriage. As Erin had said, there was a slight resemblance to T’li in his features, and as he helped T’li from the carriage, their eyes met. And she saw something . . . something disturbingly familiar there.

‘Ah, so this is my long lost “sister”.’

For some reason, Rhian quickly interposed herself, taking T’li’s arm.

‘Be a gentleman, Brandon. My brother’s wife has been very ill, and needs bed rest.’

Brandon smiled broadly. ‘Erin’s wife. Of course,’ he said ironically. ‘She will have a room next to mine, so that I may best watch over her.’

Smiling demurely in return, Rhian replied, ‘The three of us, Gina, T’li, and myself, will share the same chamber. That way, you can watch over all three of us.’

T’li thought she detected a glint of anger behind Brandon’s smooth exterior, though he bowed

politely.

‘As you wish. Have you dined?’

‘We have not!’ Gina put in quickly.

‘Then I suggest that you change into something more suitable while the evening meal is prepared.’ He gestured them inside.

-

When T’li saw the bed, all she wanted to do was lie down and sleep. But at the other’s insistence, she was soon washed and wearing a warm, fur lined gown. When they made their way to the dining room, Brandon was nowhere to be found. But two servants, and a sumptuous meal were. Gina’s behaviour, as she tied into a plump partridge, was less than ladylike.

‘Honestly, Gina! Sometimes I wonder if you’re truly my sister.’

Gina belched in response, making T’li’s eyes go wide in surprise. Seeing this, Gina burst into laughter.

‘You’ll never make a lady out of me, I’m afraid. I’m the family pig.’

‘That is nothing to be proud of,’ said Rhian, tolerantly unamused. ‘No man will have you if you keep that up.’

Gina shrugged. ‘So? What do I need a man for? To make babies with? Yuck! I don’t want saggy titties and stretch marks. You and T’li can have all the squalling brats you like, and all that goes along with them.’

Noticing T’li’s depressed reaction, mistaking its source, Rhian said, ‘You miss him?’

At the risk of offending his sisters, she shook her head and muttered, ‘He was just using me, to get what he wanted.’

Both of the girls started in anger and surprise. Gina started to say something, but Rhian cut her off with a gesture. ‘What are you saying?’

T’li swallowed. ‘It’s no secret that he only took me for his wife so that Jaspin couldn’t. His only interest in me was having an heir with no political ties. He ’

‘Who told you this nonsense?’

‘Your mother.’

Rhian shook her head. ‘If you truly believe that, then you don’t know my brother at all! He married you because it was the only way to keep you safe.’

T’li sighed. ‘Safe for what reason? What purpose? I myself am nothing to him.’

‘Erin took you to be his wife!’ Surprisingly, it was Gina who spoke. ‘If you believe that meant nothing to him, then you’re a complete fool!’

-

The mercenaries had stopped for the night. Trees were cut, and fires started. Leaving their horses with Marl, Erin and Dein moved closer to the enemy camp. When they were within earshot, a group of riders approached the camp. Greetings were exchanged.

Nudging Erin in the ribs to get his attention, Dein whispered, ‘That one . . . the tall one who just arrived. Isn’t that your friend, Brandon?’

Erin was ashen faced with disbelief. ‘Brandon! Mother of Darkness, but this is a sorry pass. My sisters, if they are still alive, will have made their way to his castle. What am I to do?’ He turned, and sat down in the snow, putting his head in his hands. ‘Maybe you were right about me after all. Perhaps I waited too long, and the conspiracy has got out of hand.’

Dein hissed to get his attention. ‘Whist! Erin! Have a look at this.’

Erin did look. Brandon was laughing with several others, brandishing his sword, and gesturing, relating some story or jest.

‘What am I supposed to be seeing?’

‘Open your eyes! Look at his sword.’

In a moment, Erin clutched his friend’s arm. ‘A Talimari sword! The damned fool!’

‘Yes,’ said Dein, ‘and with it, he may succeed in destroying your fair country.’

-

On the way back to their chambers, T’li almost fainted. She was asleep before Rhian and Gina fully managed to get her into bed.

‘She doesn’t have anything catching, does she?’ asked Gina worriedly.

Rhian grimaced in response. ‘My dear sister, aren’t you the compassionate one! But no, there is nothing for you to worry about.’

‘Good!’ said Gina, getting under the covers, ‘I don’t feel like catching something. Ye gods, but she’s warm.’

‘She’s still sick. What did you expect?’ Rhian got under the covers herself, and tested T’li’s forehead with her wrist. ‘You’re right, her fever’s up, poor thing!’

Gina sighed. ‘Why are you always feeling sorry for her? She’s never been anything but a nuisance and an annoyance.’

‘You’re such a snoop . . . I thought for sure you’d know.’

‘Know what? And what’s my being a snoop got to do with anything?’

‘Because I read her letters.’

‘You what?’ Eager for a bit of gossip, Gina leaned over the sleeping girl. ‘What was in them?’

‘Nothing much. She was just homesick. All she talked about was how she couldn’t wait to get home ’

‘Oh, stop it!’ Gina whispered angrily, laying back down. ‘I don’t want to feel sorry for her.’ Her voice took on a different timbre. ‘Even if she is Erin’s wife, she’s Udin. She can’t be trusted.’

‘We’ll see,’ Rhian replied. Reaching over, she took her sister’s hand. They fell asleep, as though holding T’li within their embrace.

-

‘They’re in there,’ said Dein to Marl and Erin as he dismounted, having just returned from Brandon’s castle. ‘If we’re going to get them out, we’d better do it now, before Brandon returns with his new-found “friends”.’

5

A vague nightmare of dark shapes clawing against the window brought Rhian awake with a jerk and a gasp of shadow-limned fear; but the nightmare did not ebb away with the sloughed skin of slumber. Instead, it blended into and became the present as the terror of dreams became the terror of wakening. The window was real. The indistinct shape clawing at it in near-darkness was real.

But then, a barely audible sound caused her attention and her perception of the moment to shift.

Erin! Or was it Erin? She arose and went to the window, clutching a poker. With some difficulty, she unlatched the window and pried it open, making as little noise as possible.

‘Rhian!’ he whispered, ‘come on, we’ve got to get you out of here.’

She thought she could make out Dein in the darkness, but could find no sign of her brother. ‘I can’t see you. How do I know that you’re really Erin?’

He made an angry sound. ‘The grease the two of you leave in my bathtub should be enough! Not to mention Gina’s awful taste in perfume, or her breaking wind and belching ’

‘All right, all right, I believe you! One moment.’

After what seemed an interminable length of time, she and Gina returned, fully dressed, dragging something.

‘Give us a hand. We can’t make her wake up.’

‘Wake who up? Is T’li with you?’

‘Shush! Just tell me what to do with her.’

He was silent a moment, apparently thinking. And then, ‘Push her out the window, head first. I’ll take her over my shoulder. Here! Don’t just drop her! Easy!’

Within moments, they were heading away from the castle into the forest where Marl held the horses ready. A few moments more, and they were riding two to a horse, the insensate T’li before Erin, Gina before Marl, and Rhian before Dein.

‘Erin, where are you taking us?’ whispered Rhian.

‘We’re going to father’s camp. They’re waiting for us.’

‘Father’s alive?’ blurted Gina.

‘Not so loud!’ he replied. ‘But yes. And most of the household.’

‘How did you escape?’ Rhian asked him.

‘We were ready for them,’ he replied. And then, in a quieter tone, ‘But not ready enough, I’m afraid. The only good news is that we have a better idea who the chief conspirators are. We just weren’t prepared for who they might me, and that there would be so many.’

They rode in silence for a time. Finally, Rhian asked an uncomfortable question that had been nagging at her.

‘How could Mother and Jaspin do such a thing?’

Dein snorted irritably behind her. ‘Your Father Adrian has them in his hip pocket. This was his doing.’

The full import of this hit home. ‘You mean the Church is behind this too? But why?’

‘Although the Church would never admit it, I think the true reason is conquest in some form.’ said Erin. ‘We’re a relatively wealthy country, and we contribute nothing to their bloody Cause, aided inadvertently to this end by the Udin and the Talimari who make the Church keep its nose out of our business. Unlike Udin and Talimar, we have separated church from state. Father Adrian and his associates have always intimated that they want to change that. My best guess is that he has finally made his move, though through our own people acting as his agents, even as he uses them to conceal doings that in truth are guided by himself.

‘The question is,’ said Erin, ‘how are we to deal with this? If the Talimari or the Udin become directly involved in our politics, then our country will become torn in two by civil war, and open to attack by Church, who will use the opportunity to corrupt Otar’s free-thinking spirit, and poison our people’s minds with sectarian dogma.’

-

For the second time since she had known him, T’li awoke in Erin’s arms. They were lying together wrapped in warm furs on a bed of fresh yellow straw, inside a tent. Climbing out of bed, heedless of her nudity and the cold, she found her clothes, pulled them on hurriedly, and went outside.

They were in the midst of a deep forest. There was little snow laying about. Mostly, the ground was covered with deep, yellow grass; last year’s frost-limned, brown and yellow oak and alder leaves crunched underfoot. Several tents were scattered about the campsite. Though the cooking-fires of late evening were all but exhausted of life, a few wraith-like tendrils of smoke still curled and writhed in the rarified air and pale light of dawn. Going to one of these, T’li knelt down, shivering, and began stoking and adding to the fire from a stack of wood nearby. The damp wood did not catch easily, and it was some time before she was warming her hands over a small blaze, ducking her head away and squinting tearily from the acrid smoke that stung her eyes as the capricious, slow-moving air caught at it. But at last the heat was sufficient to tame this annoyance, to cause the wood to hiss, the reluctant vapours to burn.

She heard someone approach and sit on the grass beside her, and guessed rightly that it was Rhian before she spoke.

‘T’li. How is it with you?’

She shrugged. ‘Truthfully? I do not know.’

‘Ah. Would you prefer that I leave you alone with your thoughts?’

She didn’t answer directly, but arranged herself more comfortably before the fire and considered the grey dawn breaking.

‘I’m not sure of what I want any more. Or about anything.’

‘You made love with Erin last night.’

T’li gaped at her in surprise. Rhian smiled in return though her tone was serious. ‘I thought you might, whether you were ready to or not.’

T’li’s gaze flinched away, returned to the fire as though waiting for it to provide answers. ‘You’re right. I wasn’t ready. I’m still not. But what am I to do? Rhian, I want to go home! I’ve been waiting for two years now. I was only fourteen when we were sent here, and it was only supposed to be for six months. Before, I felt like my life was being wasted, for nothing. Now, I feel like all my choices are being taken from me, and that the future is becoming a great, yawning, black abyss. It’s not all bad, mind you,’ she admitted. ‘I mean, Erin and I . . .’ she sighed, pulled up a tuft of grass and tossed it into the fire.

‘You want him, but you don’t want to stay here?’

She regarded Rhian askance. ‘I couldn’t ask something like that of him. Could I?’

Rhian’s look turned inward. ‘Have you asked him?’

‘Shades, no!’ T’li blurted.

‘Why not?’

She shook her head and said faintly, ‘I can’t ask him something like that! You can’t ask an heir to leave his future Kingdom!’

Rhian’s smile was enigmatic. ‘What prompted you to give in to him?’

T’li poked at the fire unhappily, shrugging. Rhian’s gaze narrowed, like a lick of sudden flame.

‘Did he force you?’

Thoroughly embarrassed, T’li muttered, ‘No! It was me. I just . . . needed someone. At first, I just wanted him to hold me. Things just . . . got out of hand.’

‘Ai,’ Rhian breathed, shaking her head, ‘and what if you’re with child, as a result?’

T’li bowed her head. Rhian thought her to be embarrassed, or thinking. But, leaning forward, found that the girl was crying silently. When she offered to embrace the girl, T’li fell into her lap, crying her heart out.

‘Shush, little one,’ Rhian murmured, reaching over T’li and tossing more wood on the fire. ‘If you gave in to Erin because of Jaspin, then I understand.’

T’li sat up, fear and disbelief on her tear streaked face. ‘How could you know that?’

‘Don’t be silly,’ she replied, brushing a strand of hair from the girl’s face. ‘I might have done the same thing, given the circumstances. Here, lay down again. You really should have stayed in bed, out of the cold.’ T’li pressed herself to Rhian’s lap, sobbing intermittently. Eventually, she framed a muffled question: ‘What am I to do?’

Rhian decided to answer her as directly as possible. ‘Both you and my brother have some feelings towards each other. That much is plain. You may not know it, but he has expended much time and effort with regards to your safety, if only because from the beginning, he has felt protective towards you. He would not say so, even to me, but I am sure he has been in love with you for some time. Just as you are in love with him.’

T’li heaved a long, shuddering sigh. The wind was picking up a bit, making both girls shiver.

‘This won’t do,’ said Rhian. ‘Come, back to bed with you, and back into your husband’s arms. This is a day of rest and reflection for all of us. While your new family plans to save their Kingdom, you should be planning what to do about your future.’

-

When T’li got undressed and back into bed, Erin stirred, taking her into his warm embrace. He asked her no questions, but made love to her, gently, tenderly. As she had done the evening before, she clung to him afterwards and wept. Holding her with one arm, he reached for a heavy fur and added it to their covers.

‘Are you warm enough?’

He felt her nod into his shoulder. When she made no reply, he stroked her back and said softly, ‘We’ll sleep in today; you can use the rest. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have taken advantage of you like that.’

‘You didn’t,’ came her muffled reply. She was shaken by a hiccuping sob.

‘No?’ he muttered, not entirely convinced. ‘Well . . . it’s done now, I suppose.’

She raised her tearstained face to look up at him. ‘Is it true . . . what Rhian told me?’

He frowned. ‘Is what true?’

‘That you . . . I mean . . . Rhian told me that you . . . do you really love me?’

His look of mild surprise did not go unnoticed by her. But he smiled, wryly. ‘I had thought that my feelings were well concealed from all but you. But yes, I do love you. Of course I do!’

She buried her head against his chest once more and either sobbed or sighed . . . perhaps both.

‘I love you, too, Erin. But . . . I don’t belong here! This place . . . I am sorry, but it is not my home.’

Lulled by his gentle caressing, she fell asleep once more. But he lay awake for some time, wondering about more than the future of Otar.

-

They awoke to the smell of the wood-smoke of the broken fast, and the ringing of the camp bell. Dressing quickly, they moved to the centre of the encampment where a page rang a large iron triangle with a metal rod. Nearby stood Erin’s father, the King, his fur lined leather hauberk glistening blue and grey in the morning sun.

Taking T’li by the hand, Erin led her to a place at his father’s side. As they approached, the old man watched T’li appraisingly. He was an imposing figure, and for all that he wore no crown or sign of office, one could not have mistaken his rank, nor his authority. Though his hair and beard

were streaked with grey, there was no sag to his shoulders, and what should have been signs of

age merely gave him an added aura of iron strength and dignity.

T’li found herself mesmerized by this man, and could only return his look with silent, shy awe as he appraised her with a father’s knowledge, and the ghost of some private remembered amusement touching his features.

He turned and addressed the gathered throng, then. There were over six hundred people gathered, mostly soldiers and their families. The strength of the Otari lay in the fact that all men were skilled with sword and bow, with staff and spear, at horsemanship and all other of the warrior’s arts. They were a disciplined people, strong and proud.

‘I have received an odd bit of news this morning,’ said the King. ‘The Talimari are in full retreat, driven from their own homelands, and they are heading north.’ At this, T’li clutched Erin’s arm for support. ‘As well,’ he continued, ‘their women and children are with them.’

The crowd began buzzing with speculation, and the King waited patiently for quiet.

‘It seems,’ he continued, ‘that Talimar has been overrun by a vast army. An army that is presently making its way north.’ In a quieter voice that was somehow ominous, he said, ‘The Talimari should be on our doorstep in a matter of days. The Enemy that pursues them will not be long behind.’

There was an uncertain silence as those gathered tried to digest this news. The Talimari have been overrun? With an enemy hard on their heels? That meant they were at war with an enemy neither the Otari nor the Udin had ever seen. But perhaps these invaders from a far place had no quarrel with Otar? Perhaps their only quarrel was with Talimar.

‘What is the size of this advancing army, who are they, and where are they from?’ Erin asked his father, who addressed the crowd with his answer.

‘I am told that the enemy are without number. Who they are, and where they are from has yet to be determined. It seems that all disputes must be set to one side to meet this threat. Our reunited army, along with that of the Talimari will be massing along the southern beachheads to meet this threat.

‘After breaking fast, we will break camp. I am sending all family members, and those with no part in war, north to await instructions, in case we have to retreat.’

This last comment stunned the gathering into silence. It had been centuries since the Otari were at war with anyone. At the time, they were ignorant cattleherds and farmers. Now, they were armed, fully prepared, more diligently skilled in battle than their neighbours, and they were preparing for defeat?

-

The road south along the coast was arduous, wending it’s way through the edge of the deep forest that in most places came near to the edge of the jagged shoreline. At times, the road was little more than a narrow trail, and loaded wains had great difficulty passing through these bottlenecks, having to smash their way through dense underbrush.

As luck would have it, it was winter, and the ground was hard and frozen, otherwise the wheels of the heavily-laden oxcarts, and the hooves of horse and ox, would have churned the damp coastal soil into mud.

T’li felt some surprise that both Rhian and Gina travelled in the procession. Neither were outfitted for battle, but both had unstrung hunting bows strapped to their saddles. They rode behind Erin and T’li, Gina chattering away, Rhian listening patiently. When T’li had turned to see them riding behind, Rhian winked at her as Gina chattered on, oblivious.

At the front rode the King, who raised his arm suddenly and brought the procession to a halt. There, ahead of them in the middle of the road, side by side like sentinels of doom that wore a familiar face, were his wife and Jaspin, and the other members of the divided household. The mercenary soldiers were nowhere to be seen.

‘So, Madame Hurkin, you have come to join us?’ The king’s voice was coldly formal.

The queen faced him with the same stony formality. ‘I have.’ Jaspin fidgeting with the reins of his mount, not looking anyone in the eye, and for all the world looking like a dangerous, crazed lunatic. When he finally glanced up, however, he stared directly at T’li. An unearthly calm seemed to come over him then, and there was a feeling of deadly malice, of hate and violence radiating from him that made T’li flinch from his stare.

‘Jaspin,’ said the king quietly, noticing the direction of his look, and T’li’s uncomfortable reaction. Jaspin’s visage changed abruptly, and the hate seemed to go out of him like a candle suddenly blown out. The eyes he turned to his father seemed somehow vacant, almost without life or volition.

‘Jaspin,’ the king said, ‘where are the mercenaries? Are they waiting for us on the road ahead, getting ready to ambush? You are my son and,’ he turned to Madame Hurkin, ‘you are my wife, but at the first sign of treachery, I will have the two of you slain out of hand.’

Madame Hurkin was about to say something, but the king cut her off with a gesture. ‘Speak, Jaspin. Until my ears hear the truth, we do not move from this spot.’

Jaspin lowered his eyes, a look of helpless anger and defeat sitting squarely on his shoulders. ‘Around the next bend, along the bluff overhanging the road ’

‘You fool!’ spat the queen, shaking with anger. ‘You are no son of mine ’

‘And you are no wife,’ said the king in a tired voice. ‘No matter.’ At his gesture, a large portion of his army broke off and rode ahead, cutting first left across the grassy lowlands before heading for the deep forest to the rear of the mercenaries’ position.

When they had waited in silence for what seemed an interminable length of time, a dull sound came to their ears, borne upon the breeze . . . the sounds of bloodshed. It went on for some time; perhaps two hours. By the time the sun reached its apex, the sounds of fighting were over, carried away on the cold wind, and a few riders were seen heading back from the fray, moving at the unhurried pace of death.

Venturing a look at the queen, T’li thought she appeared much older now; she had a dispirited aspect, and her very flesh seemed to sag. But T’li was unable to feel any pity for the woman,

remembering how she had lied, and, T’li remembered with embarrassed anger and loathing, there was the matter of how the queen had examined her, lied to her, tried to manipulate her . . . in effect, forcing her to become Erin’s wife to escape having Jaspin’s malign predations forced upon her.

One could see in every line of the returning riders that the battle had been quickly won, the mercenaries dispatched. The soldier leading removed his helm and spoke to the king directly.

‘The way is now clear.’

The king nodded. ‘Let us proceed then. And, Rollin?’

The soldier who had addressed him paused from replacing his helm. ‘Sir?’

‘Leave the dead where they lay.’

‘Sir?’ There was a note of disbelief in the soldier’s voice.

‘You heard me rightly,’ said the king. ‘Our time and our energy are needed elsewhere.’

Though it was clear the soldier disliked this order, he obeyed without question, said only, ‘Understood,’ replaced his helm, and returned with his fellows to act as the advance guard.

As they advanced once more, rounding the bend, they began to see the signs of the aftermath of battle. T’li had never experienced direct armed conflict before and was appalled at what she saw. Men killed with swords did not die neatly and painlessly. Their tortured bodies lay thick along the beach, twisted and grotesque, open wounds and stinking, spilt gore beginning to attract flies, and resembling fresh meat in a slaughterhouse. Several of the corpses were headless, and to T’li’s shock had been mounted on stakes along the road as a warning, their final moments of horror and agony bereft of the least dignity or meaning.

I was once eager to experience this? some inner voice wailed in appalled disbelief.

The queen acted as though she were unaware of the carnage about them, but Jaspin looked about with frank interest and disappointment. Perhaps he had hoped his mercenaries were more adept in the art of warfare.

The king and queen rode side by side now, and Jaspin dropped back, uneasily looking for a spot where he fit in. T’li became uncomfortably aware that by her presence she had usurped Jaspin’ place at his brother’s side, and as Jaspin passed her, once more his glance flicked across her features like a hateful lash, making her flinch involuntarily.

-

As they continued, the king and queen began having a conversation that consisted of short, terse sentences, punctuated by long periods of silence. They spoke so quietly that only the timbre of their speech reached the others’ ears, and that timbre was so flat and suppressed as to convey

nothing.

Glancing over at Erin, T’li saw the muscles of his jaw bunching and unbunching with anger . . . or was it something else? Feeling her eyes upon him, he turned to her and tried to smile, but the attempt failed.

‘Many of those who fell,’ he said quietly, ‘were of Brandon’s household. I cannot believe that he has been turned against us!’

T’li frowned, recalling Brandon’s conduct when he greeted herself, Rhian, and Gina.

‘What is it?’ he asked her, noticing her look.

Still frowning, her gaze elsewhere, she said, ‘I’m not sure, exactly. But your friend, Brandon, was acting as though . . . like he was . . .’ she was silent a moment, fumbling for a comparison. Then, she had it. Meeting Erin’s gaze, she said softly, so as not to be overheard, ‘He was like Jaspin.’

Erin’s mien told her plainly that he didn’t understand what she was talking about. Flustered, trying to elaborate, she said quickly, ‘It’s that look he gets sometimes . . . so full of hate and anger. And Brandon . . . well . . . he was less than a gentleman . . . like Jaspin.’

Erin went rigid as this remark, and his eyes were hard. ‘What do you mean, Brandon was less than a gentleman?’

Though afraid of having offended Erin, she plunged ahead. ‘He wanted to put me in the room next to his . . . and . . .’

Rhian, who had overhead this last exchange, came closer and whispered, ‘Erin, what she says is true. Right from the start, Brandon was not himself.’

Erin mulled this over in silence. The words Like Jaspin kept repeating themselves in his mind like a litany. Like Jaspin. Unbidden, an image of Father Adrian came into his mind, along with the words, Father Adrian has them in his back pocket. A look of stunned realization came over his face.

‘Father,’ said Erin suddenly, for all to hear, ‘where did Father Adrian come from originally? And to whom in the archdiocese does he answer?’

It did not go unnoticed that the queen’s shoulders flinched at these words. Turning in her saddle, T’li noticed that Jaspin bore a startled, hunted look.

If the king noticed any of this, he gave no sign, but said, ‘I am uncertain of his origins, his associates, and,’ there was a hint of irony in his voice, ‘his present whereabouts. I had heard that

he came from somewhere in the south . . .’ As his words trailed off, he turned to look at the queen, and he appeared shaken.

Guards!’ The procession came to a sudden halt as the king and queen faced each other. Eight of the king’s guard approached.

‘The queen. My son, Jaspin. Those of my household who accompanied them. Take them over there in the middle of the clearing. Disarm and bind them, arms behind their backs.’

‘Sir?’ a young soldier cried in disbelief.

‘Need I repeat every order?’ cried the king, the overt threat of violence in every line of his body.

The queen said nothing as she was helped down and led away, but Jaspin protested angrily and had to be subdued. Presently, they were standing in the clearing at the side of the road, bound as the king had ordered. Dismounting, the king approached them, drawing his sword. With mounting fear and horror, T’li realised that the king was intent on slaying his own wife and son, as well as several members of his own house. Despite what they had done, she looked to Erin pleadingly, but his face was pale, and set like stone.

Rhian, too, sat like a statue, holding the reins of Gina’s horse as her younger sister watched, horrified.

Trying to get loose, Gina shouted, ‘Father? What are you doing? Oh, God, no! Rhian? Erin?’ She dismounted and tried running to her father, to make him stop. But a soldier of the king’s guard held her back as she started screaming at her father hysterically.

Oblivious to all but the two standing before him, the king approached his wife, placing the edge of his sword along her neck.

‘Tell me,’ he said in a deadly quiet voice, ‘who is Father Adrian really?’ He turned to look at Jaspin’s averted face, his sword still at his wife’s throat. ‘Who is he? Where is he? And . . .’ he returned his unwavering gaze to Madame Hurkin’s face, ‘what have the two of you done? How has he made you betray me?’

For an instant, Madame Hurkin seemed on the verge of saying something. But then, she averted her face, clamped her jaw shut and uttered not a word. The king closed his eyes, seemed to waver momentarily. When his eyes were open, however, his gaze was elsewhere, and he acted without hesitation. He drew his sword across Madame Hurkin’s neck. T’li heard Gina scream, watched as she crumpled in the guard’s grasp. And she watched in speechless horror as Madame Hurkin fell to her knees, blood coursing from her throat and mouth. The onlookers were numb with shock and disbelief, with the apparent exception of the king, Erin, and Rhian.

The king, sword upraised, approached Jaspin now.

‘You are clearly no longer my son, as surely as this creature is no longer my wife. Pray, drop this pretense, and tell me the truth about yourselves and Father Adrian.’

A change seemed to come over Jaspin then. His eyes seemed to clear, and he watched his father, as if from a great distance. ‘As you wish. I had long grown tired of this game, regardless.’ He gazed darkly down at his mother, who, though grievously injured, was yet very much alive. ‘But I will answer none of your questions. Be done with it.’

Jaspin’s visage assumed an air of intractability. The habitual meanness about his eyes and mouth were as strict and uncompromising as a tablet.

‘As you wish,’ muttered the king. To the men of his guard, he said quietly, ‘Burn them,’ and turned his back, heading for his horse.

‘You mean . . . alive?’ asked one young soldier, incredulously.

‘Alive,’ said the king as he mounted.

Gina, who had revived, was placed upon her horse where she watched, her face pale with a stunned expression. She and T’li shared a long, sick look. As the others watched, the prisoners

were tied together, their backs against a tree, the wood being piled around them until it was knee

deep, and set ablaze. T’li and Gina moved off to a place where they couldn’t see. In a moment, the sound of burning was very loud. Shielding her ears with her hands as some of the prisoners began screaming, Gina dismounted and threw herself upon the ground, weeping.

‘Why did they have to do that? What’s the matter with everyone?’

T’li, too, was shaken by the burning, and as soon as she dismounted, sat upon the ground beside Gina. The two girls fumbled their way into each other’s arms then, and for a time they lapsed into shocked, hysterical grief, and a shared, aghast disbelief at such heartless, sickening barbarity, even as the world turned around them, and the smoke of murder and heartrending screams blighted the skies above.

-

When at last they rejoined the others as the column began moving once more. Erin watched T’li

speculatively as she returned to his side.

‘You think my father acted wrongly?’

T’li couldn’t meet his gaze. ‘He didn’t have to burn them alive like that.’

He nodded. ‘Gina obviously shares your sentiment. As does Rhian.’

She looked at Rhian in surprise. Rhian was watching her father at the head of the line, an unaccustomed hardness to her features. Looking ahead, T’li saw that King Hurkin’s shoulders

seemed clenched. She felt an inexplicable desire to see his face.

‘As do I,’ he said, finally.

Searching Erin’s features, she found the same hard and faraway look as she saw in Rhian.

They resumed their journey in silence.

-

It took a week to reach the southernmost point along the coast. There were snow-covered, terraced farmlands, ending in stark, steep sided mountains. The skies had grown overcast, and fine snow like powder fell incessantly.

During that week, shiploads of refugees had landed, a haunted, weary look in their eyes, and bearing with them a cold dread. For the first time, T’li saw Talimari women and children. Their attire was not sufficient to withstand the harsh, northern winters, and many wore rags that had obviously been blankets, rugs, curtains, even tapestries.

It was reported that the Talimari army to the north had finally been contacted, and was proceeding to Otar with all possible speed. Curious, suspicious, and hesitant, the armies of Udin followed in their wake, wondering if this wasn’t some kind of ruse. But when they had confirmation from the Otari, and a formal request for the care of refugees, they acted.

It soon became apparent to even the most uneducated eye that the Talimari reserve armies had been decimated. Their retreat had been a rout, and thousands of fleeing refugees, the elderly, women and children, had been slaughtered mercilessly.

When T’Argot the king of Udin arrived some two weeks later, laying eyes on the hundreds of maimed women and children, the horror and the chaos, he was unmoved. But concerned for his own people, he said to king Hurkin, ‘Is it true that they were so totally annihilated in so short a

time?’

‘It is,’ replied the king, simply.

‘And you are sure that even with your combined armies that you cannot hold them here?’

King Hurkin fixed him with his steely gaze. ‘King Dreis’quot was unable to hold them back anywhere, at any time. He has been delayed for so long that I fear he must have perished.’ He

shuddered, looking all the more like an old man.

T’Argot was a younger, defiant, more arrogant man, with jet black hair and short beard. The thought uppermost in his mind was that here was an opportunity to wipe out the Talimari for good and all. He was not at all taken with King Hurkin’s assertion that the three armies had best fight side by side.

‘What of this rubbish about Father Adrian,’ T’Argot said, his voice jeering.

Hurkin sighed, tired of T’Argot’s senseless arrogance. ‘It is not rubbish. I have seen the results of his handiwork with my own two eyes. My wife and my younger son were both turned against me . . . they were plotting against Otar . . . they betrayed their own people, and they tried to assassinate me ’

T’Argot was outraged. ‘That is preposterous! I suppose they were induced by some potion to act the good Father’s will . . .’ his voice trail off at the sight of the glaring, unfriendly eyes that

surrounded him. Talimari eyes, who had seen such murder and betrayal first hand.

‘You will see soon enough,’ said one Talimari soldier in an ominously quiet, toneless voice. ‘And you will see your soldiers bleed and your loved ones butchered without mercy, just as we have. And you will gnash your teeth with grief and despair and helpless frustration. And in the end, you will die, as we have been dying.’

The word die seemed to hang in the air like an evil spell, a black enchantment that clutched

at their hearts, made their mortal souls cringe with fear.

Shaken, T’Argot tried to regain his composure with bluster. ‘Bah! I will not listen to any more of this nonsense!’

As he moved to leave, the soldier who had spoken muttered, ‘So did we all.’ This, more than anything else, made Hurkin’s heart feel like a frozen lump of ice in his chest.

‘T’Argot,’ he said quietly, ‘of those who betrayed, this much I know. Someone has shown them the hand of a power far greater than ours. It grieves me that the innocent have suffered so by their cowardice, but it is a cowardice even you should be able to understand. Father Adrian sought to undermine our three kingdoms by falsely offering eternal life to those who most feared death.’ His gaze turned inward. ‘Oh, what folly it was to allow him into our hearts and our homes! Where we all bared our very souls to the man, in trust and in friendship.’

He turned his bleak gaze on the younger man, and for a moment, T’Argot lost his usual air of arrogance. In its place was the visage of a man trying to come to grips with a hard and bitter truth.

‘If what you say is true . . .’

‘Aye,’ muttered Hurkin, nodding, ‘you had better dispatch men you can trust, straightaway. Your home is not safe, though the enemy lies before you.’

6

The young man dressed in black desert garb jumped lightly from the deck amidship the sleek, two masted schooner, eschewing the gangplank which was in use, and began wending his way through the noisome docks that were one continuous, colourful, floating, bustling outdoor market. The sun above was high and hot in a pale desert sky only a few shades lighter than the colour of the incredibly transparent water. A swirling chiarsoscuro of colourful birds milled above, and dark shapes in the water below. The floating wooden docks and ships, the tackle and cargo and tall mast swathed in furled sailcloth, together created a smell and feel as exciting as sunshine and promise itself. Paradise, thought Ali to himself, taking the brisk salt air deep into his lungs. Heaven on Earth.

There was only the one way off the docks: a wide gangway ascending to a sandstone lip that had been cut into what had once been a low sandstone hill, but had over many years been carved and shaped into the port city of Menelodaeon. The city itself was a chaotically laid out series of sandstone walls, two storey dwellings, roads, lanes, and markets. In the centre of the city

was a wall perhaps four storeys tall and twenty to thirty feet thick, which could be entered only

through a single constricted passageway. Access was gained only if the arriving guest was

known, and even then, any admittance was marked by the watchful eyes of many armed guards.

Ali, however, was on good terms, both with the gatekeepers and the guards, both of whom hailed and harangued him in a friendly manner as he stopped briefly to speak with them.

‘You’d better not keep Akhmed waiting,’ one of the gatekeepers told him after a moment. ‘Those merchants from Torruk are here, paying him a visit. Your timing couldn’t have been better.’

Ali noticed a sharp look in his friend’s eye. A warning? With a subtle salute to the gatekeeper, that was actually a private signal of affirmation, he said his farewells and began making his way towards the Court of Nine, and hence to Akhmed, his patron.

With more than a little amusement, he bedevilled the messengers whose job it was to keep ahead of him, to forewarn Akhmed of his coming. He ran swiftly, all the way to the doors of Akhmed’s court. Once there, the messengers overtook him, and passed inside as the guards let them in, one of them glancing at Ali in irritation and fear. Though the guard’s faces were impassive as stone, one of them gave Ali a surreptitious wink, which he acknowledged with a barely perceptible smile.

He was kept waiting for some time. Eventually, the door opened, and the court herald said to him, ‘He will see you now.’ As Ali entered the chamber, the herald announced his presence.

Ali bowed, heel of his hands to his forehead, then arms opened wide, palms facing upwards in supplication to the Creator, and waited for introductions.

It belatedly dawned on him that none were forthcoming, and that the men seated with his friend and patron looked more like desert warlords than merchants. Like Ali they were all dressed in black and silver. To a man they were stiff backed and disciplined, lean and tough looking. Ali’s

nerves tautened as he noted that the hall was silent. The ever present musicians were absent, as

were the dancing girls. In fact, the only people present were his patron’s aides and a group of mer women, bare to the waist and wearing diaphanous pantaloons that concealed nothing, who sat together in a corner of the room, looking out of place and uneasy. These last Ali recognized as ambassadors of Queen Animanya, ruler of the Doloman Islands. They were very beautiful in a bewitching way, white skinned and golden haired like the legendary daughters of Nerius and Doris. But what were they doing here? And who were these non merchants?

Ali knew better than to ask questions at present, or to volunteer information, so he bowed once more, this time in Court of Nine fashion, and said, ‘I have returned, my patron. What would you ask of me?’

To his surprise, one of the newcomers, possibly the leader, addressed him.

‘What tidings, Ali al Abdhar?’

Ali looked up sharply to his patron, who gave no sign. Suspicious now, he said, ‘Who are you to ask, unbidden to do so in the house of Akhmed, and what do you want?’

A dangerous silence ensued, during which Ali wondered about the proximity of his crew, who were due to arrive at any moment, assuming his message has been interperated correctly by the gatekeeper. Though he looked from man to man carefully, he could see no weapons. Still, instinct and experience told him they were there all the same.

At last the massive door was pushed open fractionally, and the messenger, the one that had eyed him warily before, squeezed his way inside. Outside, Ali heard the voice of one of his crewmates. In a voice pitched for anyone standing outside to hear, Ali said, ‘I did not find the Golden Ring, if that is what you are asking. To be sure, I believe now that it does not exist; has never existed.’

‘What are you playing at?’ the false merchant said, a hand straying to a fold in his robe.

Catching the important of his movement, Ali nodded inwardly to himself. ‘The Golden Ring,’ he repeated, ‘from the nose of the Golden Bull of legend. How could you not know of this? I have searched far and wide ’

There was commotion at the doors as some of the guards from the gate and his crew burst into the room. Instantly the men in black were on their feet, scimitars in hand. Something of their movements caused Ali to shout, ‘Back away! Pikemen and archers only.’ The guards responded instantly, as did the men in black. They bolted as a man to the nearest window and leapt. Ali ran to the window, and gaped in disbelief. The courtyard, fifty feet below, was empty.

‘Your pardon, my friend!’ cried his patron, who jumped to his feet and embraced the young man. ‘That was bravely done! Guards, begin a search for those men. Set archers on all the walls. Let no horse leave the city. They may try to escape back into the desert, from whence they came.’

‘Where is that shifty little herald?’ Ali asked, not having liked the look of the little man. ‘Why is he not at his post?’

‘My court herald is dead,’ Akhmed told him. ‘That one you saw was a spy, an imposter.’

Ali shook his head, trying to make sense of it all. And then said, ‘Akhmed, I would like to introduce you to my crew. This tall, black man is Bolo, my helmsman. His smaller counterpart

there is his older brother Nalu. The stout fellow with the red beard is Bain, or ‘Red,’ to his

friends. The tall, thin man holding the crossbow is Eric. That young Udin woman (yes, I know she’s very pretty, but she’s also very dangerous) is May, my weaponsmaster. That blonde amazon, a head taller than every one else except Bolo, standing behind her with the pike, that’s Vasha, my first mate. Those two swarthy fellows you can’t tell apart are Ajab and Gurdeep, who with their wives, Fariba and Anna (who are also twins) run the galley.

‘As you are my friend and patron, my friends are your friends, and we beg leave to be at your service,’ he said formally, and bowed.

The old man put a hand on his shoulder, honest love and gratitude in his eyes. ‘Ah, my young friend, come; come all!’ he added for the benefit of Ali’s crewmates. ‘Come, sit down for refreshment and the gathering of news.’ He beckoned to the mer women, the leader of which came and sat beside Ali and the merchant, while the rest mixed with the other guests, visibly relaxed now.

‘Alas, we are come on hard times,’ the Kalif told Ali in a low voice. Nodding to the mer woman, he said, ‘This is ambassador Gaia, who you have seen before, but not met. I think you should hear her words first.’

Immune to Ali’s blunt appraisal, though half naked, and this somehow lending more power to her words, she said in a coldly regal tone, ‘These men thought to extort tribute from the merchants of Menelodaeon. Part of that tribute was to be myself and my entourage. These same men attempted to waylay us on the high seas. I believe that it was their intent to prevent us from ’ she said this last as though the words galled her  ‘requesting your help.’

Ali found himself gaping fooishly in chagrin. ‘Our help? Queen Animanya? Queen Sorceress of the Doloman Islands? How could we possibly  ?’

‘The Queen is taken. Possibly dead,’ said the young woman. Her face was pale; her voice shook with suppressed emotion. ‘The royal talisman and source of her power, the staff bearing the Vhurd aq, too, is gone. Doubtless her killers or abductors have not yet mastered the periapt, or our land and yours would feel its effects. Doing so will take time. But there is no time to lose. The staff must be returned to its rightful owners; if it were to fall into the hands of a rogue necromancer, you can rest assured that a new Dark Age will begin.’

‘I wish that I could help,’ Ali told her faintly, ‘but I am only one small trader. My crew are well armed and skilled in combat, but they are not an army! I cannot fight a war for you ’

‘Failure to retrieve the Vhurd aq means death for us all,’ the young woman said; ‘heroes, cowards, even those who claim to be unable, or are otherwise preoccupied.’

‘I do not doubt her word,’ the old Kalif said. ‘She warned me about these men in black; yet despite the guard being doubled at my order, after entering the city, they still managed to gain

the Court of Nine undetected, except for that accursed little spy of theirs.’

At that moment, a guard was admitted, who came to stand at attention before the Kalif and removed his headgear. He was still breathing hard and sweating profusely from exertion, as he

said, ‘They have escaped into the desert. We have lost seven. Two of their mounts we slew, but

not one of those black clad demons! The false herald we came upon in the stables, but he took

poison and died before we could lay a hand on him. One of our men that died touched the body. A company of eighty pursues them. Two of their number ride double, so at least four we will have before long, I promise you!’

‘Call them back!’ said Ali to the Kalif. ‘Quickly!’

‘A trap?’

‘There is no doubt in my mind.’

The Kalif sighed. ‘It is so ordered.’ He dismissed the soldier, who left in thwarted rage for being disallowed to exact a just revenge.

-

Yet two hours later, Ali’s instinct’s were proven right. The company of riders returned as though pursued by a host of demons. ‘Close the gates behind us!’ they called. ‘Man the walls! Summon the archers! We are under attack!’

From high atop a parapet, the old Kalif, Ali, and the mer woman, Gaia, watched as the nearest dunes of the yellow desert became crested with black.

‘Where would they get fresh water enough for such an army in the open desert?’ the old Kalif muttered in disbelief.

‘The presence of a rogue necromancer would explain much,’ said Ali to himself, but Gaia turned to him seriously.

‘If that is so, they you would do well to evacuate the city, before it is too late! There is a power out there that I have not felt before.’ She was very pale, her eyes wide and staring. ‘They mean to slay everyone, to the last innocent child! Do you not feel it?’

The old Kalif turned to Ali, his eyes wide, fearful.

‘Ali . . . my young friend . . . do you agree? What should I do?’

Watching the mer woman, Ali said, ‘I suggest you get the citizens onto the boats with as much food and water as they can hold without sinking. Commandeer the merchant fleets if you have

to. Get every able bodied fighter on the wall for show. The moment they attack, we will make for the boats and set the piers on fire.’

‘But . . . should we not make a stand? My city! My palace-’

‘Make a stand? Against that?’ Ali said with a nod. ‘Your elite soldiers couldn’t kill or capture a dozen or so. There must be at least one hundred thousand out there.’ He smiled, grimly. ‘My boat must be unloaded by now. I’ll have my crew leave these “friends” a little parting gift. Besides,’ he added kindly, ‘your people are your true palace. You will remain their beloved Kalif, come what may.’

-

Ali was the last to leave the wall. The enemy came at nightfall; their rush was like the night wind, invisible and all but silent. It was very lucky that he left when he did, for the attack came from the air in the form of indistinct black shapes, like incarnate shadows. Some stragglers were caught, and screamed terribly before falling silent. Scant moments later, Ali leapt aboard his boat, the last to leave, and the pier, which had been soaked with oil, was set ablaze. As he watched what transpired then with grim anticipation, to his annoyance, the enemy, sensing danger, or perhaps smelling the oil, stopped short of the wooden pier. The fire was soon glittering unnaturally in their eyes. The shadows in the air hovered above the wall, then settled upon it like vultures, apparently loath to venture into the light.

Several minutes later, as the sails were unfurled and caught the night breeze, there was a brilliant flash from the centre of the city, followed by a deafening, heart stopping concussion. Within moments, all ran for cover as a rain of debris began falling.

Ali couldn’t suppress a smile as Gaia yelped in surprise and clutched his arm in alarm. His smile froze when he saw the look on May’s face, however, and he carefully disengaged himself and began shouting orders. May’s disdainful look didn’t fade as she took in the mer woman’s form; she approached the mer woman.

‘Come. I’ll show you and your aides to your quarters.’

‘I did not know that your Ali was a mighty sorcerer,’ the woman said.

‘Sorcerer? Oh, the big flash, and the bigger noise!’ She led the woman aft, down a short flight of stairs, and through a door that led to the aft section of the ship below the bridge. ‘That wasn’t sorcery. It was black powder, the very cargo sent for by Akhmed. That was four months’ hard work gone, in the blink of an eye.’ She huffed, angrily. ‘At least we had time to take on fresh provisions before all this nonsense started.’ She opened a door to the right, which opened into a spacious room with large windows, richly coloured and carved dark woods inlaid with mother of pearl, a table surrounded by a padded bench covered with supple leather.

‘Where do we sleep?’

The Udin woman showed her handles and locks set into the dark wood of the interior and forward walls, opened and flipped down a cot. ‘There are nine of these, so take your pick. If you need to freshen up, there is a toilet room belowdeck. The head is up at the bow ’

‘The “head?” ’

‘Privy . . . commode . . .’ She smiled at the responding colour in the mer woman’s cheeks. ‘For one so forthright with her body, you’re rather conservative when it comes to your bodily

functions ’

‘That is hardly the same thing ’

‘No?’ As she left, May tweaked the mer woman’s nipple, giving her a wicked conspiratorial leer.

Oh!’

May was still chuckling to herself as she rejoined Ali on the bridge. Leaning on the rail, she said, ‘Well? Is this going to be a Quest of some sort, or just another conquest?’

The expected witty rejoinder didn’t come. ‘How many barrels of black powder do we have left?’

‘Just the six, like you told me ’

All six?’

She sighed. They had argued about the danger of keeping the stuff on board, but in the end, she had acquiesced. ‘Yes. They’re in the forward compartment, where they’ll do the least damage if the worst happens, meaning a few of us might survive, should they explode.

‘You were right, I was wrong; yes, they will very probably become useful; no, I still don’t like having them on board. We’re not really going after that damned Staff, are we?’

‘May,’ he said in a low voice, ‘Menelodaeon, our chief port of call, has just been wiped off the map.’

‘So? We can always go north to Talimar, or further north still, to Otar. And Udin ’ this last

sounded like a hopeful suggestion.

‘And war never ending,’ Ali added. ‘We never know until we get there which way the alliances stand, we always run the risk of being commandeered, pressed into service, or arrested the moment we enter port ’ He stopped. They had been joined by Gaia, who pointedly ignored

May’s presence.

‘Those northern coastal countries will soon be laid waste, if rumours be true. The evil Magi ’

‘That will never happen,’ May interrupted angrily.

The look Gaia gave her was not kind. ‘You say that because you are Udin, and because you are ignorant. I speak from certain knowledge.’

May’s eyes glittered dangerously as she fingered her knife hilt. ‘Listen to me, you little slut of a water witch ’

‘Ware,’ said the mer woman to Ali, ‘lest I teach this little fool to respect her betters.’

Before Ali could intervene, May had drawn her knife . . . and cried out in pain, dropping it, her hand contorted as though held in a grip of iron. Then, clutching at her belly with a cry of agony, she fell to her knees.

‘Do not threaten me, little fool!’ the mer woman hissed, appearing at once imperious and

untouchable. ‘You have no weapon that could possibly harm me. Yet bethink you; I and my people fear what might happen, should the evil Magi master the Vhurd aq. Think on that, and learn the true nature of dismay!’

‘Let her go,’ Ali said quietly, with a dangerous edge to his voice. ‘Now. And while you’re at it, explain why you didn’t act while the men in black were holding Ahkmed hostage.’

With a final wrench of power, that brought a sharp cry of pain from May, the mer woman said, ‘Then, there was a power present that we did not understand, puissant beyond our own. We did not dare intervene.’

May got to her feet, her features set, and left the bridge without a word.

‘That was cruel!’ Ali said to Gaia. ‘And unnecessary.’

‘Like all Udin women, she is crude, uncouth, and ignorant,’ Gaia said.

‘She is young,’ Ali said. ‘And intelligent, and talented enough on her own ground.’

The mer woman’s smile only barely concealed a veiled cruelty. ‘Why do you defend her? She is unworthy of you.’

‘As a person, she is worthy enough on her own ground,’ Ali rejoined. ‘I do not see that you are a fit judge, as you have clearly demonstrated through behaviour unworthy of one of your station.’

‘You dare to judge me?’ the woman said, her eyes flashing.

‘Where’s the need, when your actions judge themselves?’ he chided with gentle irony. ‘More to the point, where are we to go? This pointless talk brings us no closer to retrieving your precious

Vhurd aq.’

She paused long before answering, both in thought and in anger. At last, she said, ‘The Dark Magi rules a kingdom which lies far from here; six weeks journey across the desert to the

northeast, from there over a great range of mountains to the north, and once across, directly east

along a road which follows a great river, coming at last to a fortress called the City of Treasures.’

‘If that is so, then we have come to dark times indeed,’ Ali said, ‘for the City of Treasures has long been revered for the munificence and the benevolence of its rulers. What can have happened?’

‘The subjects of that great city,’ Gaia told him, ‘have been subverted by tales of a Saviour of the people, who, it is said, will banish poverty and illness, who will make all men kings, and who will bring his followers to abide with him in eternal bliss, in a kingdom beyond the confines of life itself, and this earth.

‘The tale is a lie, of course, for the Saviour himself would then be king over all, and the people would become his lowly subjects. He would become a tyrant without constraint, answerable to no one. His true interest is not in his subjects, but rather in himself. If he possessed the power to do the things he claims, he would be able to transform the world, were its inhabitants, both friend and foe, willing or no.

‘The truth is that he is a liar and a deceiver, always relying upon sleight of hand. The people yearn for eternal life; instead, he promises life after death, something they have, regardless. The people yearn to have the wealth and power of kings, but only kings may have such things. To grant such a desire would be folly, for there would be none left to reap or sow. This so called Saviour is alleged to perform miracles of healing, yet there are no fewer sufferers of illness, nor any lack of cripples.

‘Yet some madness has taken hold of the Magi’s followers; undoubtedly he has managed to dazzle them with his fowl arts, for the stories and claims, though unsubstantiated, run rife throughout the City of Treasures, and many claim to have actually seen them, despite incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.’

‘How do you know this?’ Ali asked her. ‘Your people, to the best of my knowledge, do not often venture into the world beyond your own Queendom, and even when they occasionally do, visit only their close neighbours for the briefest of times.’

‘We are a far sighted people,’ Gaia told him. ‘We read, in the many pools of home, the doings of the world beyond the Doloman Islands.’

‘I have heard of this,’ Ali said. ‘Yet why is it that you are unable to tell whether or not your Queen yet lives?’

‘The fate of the Queen is closed to us,’ Gaia said, as though reluctant to admit to the limitations of her people. ‘That in itself gives us hope; yet it is a hope we cannot but fear, for doubt as to Her fate may very well be used to betray us; it is something we can neither relinquish nor ignore, nor fail to act upon. If She lives, we must try to save Her, though we ourselves run the risk of becoming ensnared in the machinations of the Dark Magi.’

‘And what will happen if the Dark Magi masters this periapt you call the Vhurd aq? What then?’

She turned from him to consider the night, her features stricken, as though in facing the darkness she faced their possible future. ‘Then this puppet Saviour will lead his followers to this alleged Paradise, the people of the world will become enslaved, and the Dark Magi will become lord over all.’

For several long moments, Ali found that he had lost his voice in the face of this pronouncement. But at last, he managed in dry, brittle tones, ‘And this Saviour . . . who or what is he?’

‘He is the Great Deceiver,’ she replied, lifting her gaze to the stars, as though seeking any small sign of hope. ‘He whose appearance and whose words delight and beguile; he whose great humility can shame kings, whose vast intellect can sway the learned, whose devotion can stir whole populations to mad fervency, and armies to great victory. He is the Perfect Leader,’ she told him, ‘and indeed, he is perfect in all ways. And therein hides the subtle lie, for he promises the perfect when the perfect is unattainable by mortals. The confusion centres on the promise of life after death. Imperfect beings cannot live in a perfect world, whether in this life or the next. Beings from this world, were they to enter such a Paradise, would be quickly consumed, for their very presence would be a violation; Paradise is anathema to them, and they to Paradise.’

They stood silent for some time, listening to the fluttering snap of the sails, the rush of the bow as the ship cut its virtually wakeless path, feeling the cool sea breeze as it caught at their clothing and hair. A pale light from the departed day still touched the sky in the west to their left; the deep blue water was cold and very clear. The coastline to their right was an endless sea of sand and tan coloured sandstone. The Doloman Islands lay somewhere far to the north, a week’s journey if the weather held.

At last, Ali said, ‘It would seem, then, that there is no choice but to attempt the recovery of the Vhurd aq. But from what you’ve told me . . . will that be enough?’

‘Perhaps not,’ the mer woman admitted. ‘The Dark Magi has accomplished his ends so far without the assistance of the Vhurd aq. Even were it to be restored to its rightful owner, the Dark Magi would be no less a threat, for even were he to be unmasked, that would be of little use to those he has already enslaved. And this Saviour would be no less a threat; perhaps he would be

even more so. Appearances may be unmasked by sorcery, but ideas and beliefs are another matter. No, it is in my heart that, come what may, a Great War will ensue. Yet, even should the free world fall, if the Dark Magi is denied possession of the Vhurd aq, his kingdom will not last forever, as it would, should he keep and master that periapt. He would, in that event, have life eternal, and would therefore be able to rule forever.’

They were joined by Vasha, the first mate, who regarded the mer woman with an assessing look before addressing Ali.

‘We should disembark soon, while still under cover of darkness, and begin our trek across the desert, if that is still your wish. Do you believe these mer women capable of taking the ship in safety to the Doloman Islands?’

Ali looked to Gaia, who said, ‘My aides are capable. Your ship will be safe in their hands. When we leave ’

‘We?’ Ali interrupted, with a glance at her lack of attire. ‘Your are not fit for such a journey.’

‘You will attire me as you would one of your own,’ the woman said. ‘I must accompany you, for only I possess the skill to locate and wield the Vhurd aq; a skill we will sorely need, to ensure our escape, should we manage to take it back.’

Ali sighed, and said to Vasha, ‘Make it so. We will need all of the evening to reach our first place of sanctuary. Take Gaia below and outfit her.’

-

That night, after weighing anchor and taking a launch to the beach, and after the mer woman’s aides put the launch back to sea and made their way back to the schooner, they stood on the beach, shouldering their packs.

Gaia stared at her own in disbelief.

‘What is this? I am not a pack animal!’

May smiled sweetly  that is to say, if vipers could be said to smile sweetly.

‘That is your food, your bedding, and everything else you will need on this journey.’

Gaia was now dressed and booted in clothes suitable for crossing deserts and mountains. Seeing that the others were already ready, and quickly slinging their packs onto their backs, that she was holding things up, she picked up her own, awkwardly, and tried unsuccessfully to put it on. The tall man, Eric, assisted her. Then, as the others began the journey, she began stumbling along after them.

-

It was not yet near morning, when Ali called a halt. Gaia was lagging further and further behind. As they waited for her to catch up, Vasha said, ‘This is not good, Ali. We have come only a few miles and already her feet are blistered, her strength spent. What is to be done?’

‘Nalu,’ said Ali, ‘see to her feet, and give her one of your potions to keep her going.’

Nalu raised an eyebrow, and warned, ‘She will sleep long, once it wears off.’

‘It can’t be helped,’ Ali responded. ‘But by morning, we will have reached a place I know, a rocky outcropping with a large cave that commands a wide view. She may sleep for a day, but her stamina will be much increased.’

-

They walked all that night, and well into the next day, when they came in sight of the outcropping. As they arrived at the cave and rolled out their bedding, Gaia threw herself prone on the cave floor and was immediately asleep. Vasha, with May’s reluctant assistance, undressed the mer woman and put her to bed, moaning and quivering in feverish exhausted slumber. Seeing this, Nalu gave Vasha a jar containing a balm, which he told her would soothe the mer woman’s exhausted and overstrained muscles.

When Vasha was done with Gaia, she approached Ali. ‘She is finally having a more peaceful rest,’ she told him, ‘though she is still feverish. Nalu thinks she may be ill from exhaustion.’ Unspoken were the words, It was not wise or kind to push her so far past her limits. But Ali shrugged.

‘She demanded this journey, and to accompany us. There is strength in her, else she would not be ambassador to Queen Animanya. She suffers, true; she complains, also true; but she has not

shirked her duty, nor shied away from pain. We will wait, and when she is ready, we will resume.’

-

Gaia did not sleep for a day, nor for two days. For three whole days and three nights she slept, while the others waited. In that time they were not idle; game was plentiful, and they hunted, roasting and drying meat, which they ate and added to their provisions. Salt and herbs they found as well, and were glad that their camping ground was so well chosen.

On the fourth day, Gaia awoke, and was ashamed to discover how long she had slept. She shared a meal with them, ate ravenously, and seemed eager to be off once more.

The hard exercise and sleep seemed to have changed her, for she seemed not nearly so soft, nor did she lag or complain about her burden. A week later in the deep desert, as they pitched their tents and sat together to share a meal before retiring, she remarked wistfully, to no one in particular, ‘Oh, to have a bath! It will be a long time, I suppose, before we can bathe again.’

To her surprise, the others chuckled, smiling.

‘Use your power,’ Red said, grinning through his unruly beard, ‘to raise an ocean out of the sands, and we will gladly swim the rest of the way to the City of Treasures.’

‘Yes, and we will make a raft of you big oafs, you and my brother Bolo,’ laughed Nalu.

‘Eric will be the mast,’ quipped Gerdeep, getting a general laugh, ‘and Ajab will be the tiller.’

‘I was the tiller the last time,’ growled Ajab.

May was silent, missing the companionship of Fariba and Anna, who had stayed aboard the ship. Vasha made a poor companion, not being much of a conversationalist. And she did not want to like Gaia, though she felt herself warming to the woman involuntarily.

Ali was silent, listening to the night, his thoughts elsewhere. He was glad, however, that the tension created by Gaia seemed to be passing, and this afforded him the luxury of being able to

turn his thoughts to other things for the time being. After a time, however, he was distracted by

May’s covert glances in his direction. He finally spoke, and broke into the other’s conversation,

saying to her in a stern voice, ‘Come. I need to speak with you.’

Gaia watched them go, wondering what sort of trouble May was in. To Vasha, she said, ‘Has she done something wrong?’

The others began speaking again, though their voices were subdued.

Her voice pitched low, so that only Gaia could hear, Vasha said, ‘She is jealous of you. Ali fears that she may come to harm because of it.’

Gaia nodded. ‘Because he loves her.’

‘No,’ Vasha said with certainty. ‘Ali loves his life, his ship, and his friends, equally. May however . . . she can be such a child.’ She said this with rueful fondness.

Gaia considered her words, until Vasha inturrupted her thoughts. ‘You seem less self assured; too much so. Perhaps this journey was a mistake.’

The mer woman sighed. ‘It was no mistake. But I am ill equipped to make such a journey. I find the Burden . . . overwhelming. Uncertainty and fear dog my steps. Even my dreams assault me with doubt.’ Gaia got to her feet, trying to conceal her feelings, and stumbled off into the darkness a short way, to be alone for a time, if only to regain her composure. Eventually, she heard footsteps approaching. Without turning around, she said, ‘Vasha, please! I am a grown woman. I know my own mind. My petty fears are my own to bear, and to master.’ But to her own surprise and shame, she began weeping dryly, as silently as she could. She tried fighting the feeling with anger, but that only seemed to intensify it, to make it worse. ‘Damn that accursed sorcerer!’ she muttered. ‘I don’t want to be here. I want to go home!’ She turned her tear-streaked face Vasha; only it was not Vasha, but May who stood before her, watching her with unwilling sympathy.

‘It is time we turned in,’ May said quietly, almost kindly. ‘The others are abed already, so no one need see you.’ Gaia nodded. May turned to leave, but said over her shoulder, ‘We can never be friends. But . . . I apologise for my behaviour towards you earlier. I didn’t like you then, and I still don’t . . . but you deserve better from me. It won’t happen again.’

Gaia found herself wanting to say something to the girl, but couldn’t find the words. Regardless, May left abruptly and went to her tent, leaving Gaia to find her way back, alone and in the dark.

7

As Ali and his crew got under way once more, Gaia lagged behind at first, but this time only because she needed a moment’s necessary privacy. When she caught up with the others, to her surprise they were standing motionless at the top of a knoll, each looking off in a different direction. Scanning the horizon, she noticed that visibility was poor, and that the air felt strange; for the most part it was stiflingly still, but occasionally it would move in furtive, directionless gusts. For no reason she could put into words, Gaia felt an ugly thrill stir in her vitals.

‘We need to find high ground, and a cave, if possible,’ said Bolo. ‘We will find both if we turn west, somewhat.’

‘Bolo is right,’ Vasha said. ‘We had better move.’

Ali gave Gaia a measuring look, which she received with a bruised, expectant air. ‘We are going to have to run, long and hard and fast. Nalu, give her a swallow of that potion. I am sorry, Gaia, but this is going to be very hard on you.’

She drank the potion as she was told, choking on its bitterness, and then they were on their way. The others reached their stride almost instantly. She, however, was soon stumbling after them, the straps of her pack sawing at her shoulders, the weight of the pack throwing her off her stride as it bumped and shifted on her back. The potion did much to bolster her strength, but her lungs were soon burning, and her heart felt as though it would burst.

On they ran, and still on and on without let, until she was weeping silently in frustration and fear, lest they pull away altogether and abandon her to her fate. The wind was coming up now, and turning her head, she looked to the east-

-and almost stopped dead in her tracks!

The storm was gaining on them, an impossible avalanche of sand and wind that reared and crested hundreds of feet into the heavens like a great tidal wave! She could feel its thunderous, unfettered might at her back, and sheer terror caused her to redouble her efforts. Looking ahead, she could see hills, and felt a faint surge of hope.

‘Now for it!’ Ali shouted.

Gaia stumbled and almost fell, until a steadying hand urged her upright. It was Vasha, who had dropped back to ward her. Their exposed skin was lashed by debris carried on the howling wind that hurled them along; the skies darkened as though night were falling like a preternatural curtain; the air was suddenly filled with stinging sand and grit . . .

Looking up, Gaia saw that the hills were closer than they had seemed; they were almost there . . .

And then the storm hit!

Without knowing how it had happened, Gaia found herself sprawled out on her belly, blinded, spitting out a mouthful of sand. A strong hand took her by the arm, and she followed whoever it was that led her, blindly. Ahead there loomed a deeper darkness that took on more and greater definition, until at last it became the entrance to a vast cavern. She was led on until the wind receded altogether, and still on until she was in total darkness. At last, the hand released her, and she fell to her knees, coughing until she retched. At last, when her tears had washed the sand out of her eyes and she could see again, she saw that they were in a large chamber, and that someone had lit a fire. She began moving towards the light, when a great weariness came upon her. She felt herself falling, and then she knew no more.

-

When Gaia awoke, she found herself laying in her blankets. It slowly dawned on her that she had been undressed and bathed. Opening her eyes fully, she saw that Vasha was sitting beside her,

holding a bowl, the smell of whose contents set her mouth to watering. Vasha fed her, and she ate

ravenously, though she was almost too weak to move. When she was sated, sleep threatened to

take her immediately, but she tried to fend it off by talking.

‘Don’t try to talk,’ Vasha said with a smile. ‘You’re barely whispering. We are all safe, and the storm rages outside.’

She tried in vain to speak, but Vasha stroked her tenderly, until sleep overcame her once more.

‘Only one day,’ Ali said when Vasha rejoined the others. ‘She is indeed improving.’ Turning to Bolo, who had just returned from his watch at the cave entrance, he said, ‘Is there any change?’

‘There are black shapes riding atop the currents of the winds,’ Bolo said in a low voice. ‘What they are, I do not know, but they scream like demons. They are spying out the lands. The cave entrance overhangs in such a way that I think our place of concealment is invisible from the air, but we must not count on that. We should go further towards the interior and hide ourselves; find a place with a small entrance and seal ourselves in.’

The others digested this news in grim silence. At last Ali said, ‘Find such a place. While you are gone, we will remove all sign of our having been here.’

-

This task was no sooner accomplished, when they found an inner cave with a small hole for an entrance and sealed themselves within it with a huge boulder. At once, to their horror, they heard a faint piercing wail from the other side of the stone. Soon it was answered by another, and yet another, until the very air trembled with the faint screams and echoes like the damned. Gaia trembled in a cold sweat in her sleep, and began moaning, until Vasha lay next to her, holding and soothing the young woman until she became quiet once more. The others watched the entrance with their weapons drawn, their eyes glittering in the faint torchlight.

All at once, there was silence, but it was replaced by an oppressive feeling of expectant horror. Faint, but drawing nearer, there came a low rumbling noise; but the noise was not that of stone or trembling earth, but rather the deep throated rattle of some massive beast. It came nearer, and nearer, until it was just outside. There was a scraping noise, as of something massive and heavy being dragged. The huge boulder blocking the entrance suddenly moved, and they backed away, weapons raised, prepared to fight. The scraping noise continued, and the boulder shifted slightly, then again . . . and again . . .

Hearts pounding, they watched and listened. But the boulder moved no more, and all sounds from outside gradually receded. When all was quiet once more, Ali whispered, ‘We will remain here a number of days, listening and keeping watch. I do not trust those things to leave immediately. Regardless, we cannot afford to be caught by such on the open desert, or it would surely be the end of us.’

-

They put the torches out, and lived and ate in darkness for five days, until the air became rank and stale. On the sixth day they lighted their torches once more and emerged as stealthily as possible. Of the creatures that had invaded their cave there was no sign, but deep clawmarks were gouged into the floor and walls in places as though the native stone were mere clay, and the reason for the shifted stone became obvious: something massive had passed just outside their hiding place, displacing the stone slightly as it pushed its way through the larger passages. Outside it was morning, and they fled their place of concealment, wishing to put as many miles between themselves and that place as possible.

No longer lagging, Gaia walked near the lead, behind Ali and Vasha. Behind her came May, Bolo and Nalu, Bain and Eric, and finally Gurdeep and Ajab. No one spoke. They were in a hilly country, a stony, meandering strip of land which arced through the desert, ending in the foothills of the distant mountains to the north, the tips of which stood in the distance like a line of irregular broken teeth. They were not a reassuring sight. Gaia looked upon them, and her heart trembled.

-

That evening, as they found a suitable spot for sleeping, and sat down to take a meal, May joined Gaia, who sat apart from the others.

‘May I ask a question,’ the weaponsmaster asked.

‘You may ask,’ the mer woman said, her features closed.

‘I don’t understand you! You have some sort of power, but you never use it. I have to . . . we have to know what to expect from you, should we have to fight.’

The mer woman sighed, and nodded in comprehension. ‘My power,’ she mused bitterly. ‘Its efficacy is not apt for battle, should I face more than one opponent. It is . . . unfocused: it takes all my concentration to bring it to bear. Even so, while it can disable for a short time, it cannot kill. Were you seriously intent on killing me, I could prevent you only for a time, before my resources ebbed away.

‘So there you have it. Should we be faced with battle, I will be a serious liability.’

May frowned. ‘Then what good is your power?’

The mer woman appeared hurt by this remark, but replied, ‘My power concerns myself, and my people. By “being good for something,” if you mean “what does it do?” then I will tell you that it is a state of being; it is our relationship to our world. Within our sphere, we have influence over Nature and its inhabitants, and therefore those who come within the bounds of our demesne. But in the terms that you describe, it is a disfocused thing. It is not a tool or craft, like the magic of necromancers and such. It is what you would term “magic,” I suppose, but it is the magic of living things, and as such it is an indirect and subtle thing.’

May’s gaze narrowed at this. ‘Then this Vhurd aq . . . is it some sort of weapon?’

Gaia shook her head. ‘No. It is not a weapon. At least, not in our hands, though I suppose that it may be used as such. But it does have other uses that may be put to our advantage.’

‘Such as?’

The mer woman smiled without humour. ‘It may be used to conceal, or to reveal. Thus we may evade the enemy, or learn his secrets. It may be used to enhance or diminish; therefore the skill of the enemy could be lessened, our own enhanced. It may be used to dispel illusion, or weave webs of fancy. Such things it can do. There are other things, which I may not reveal to you; they are things that concern only my people and our way of life, for the most part.

‘But the Vhurd aq is a thing of great power, and its uses may be usurped and bent by one who possesses the strength of will and mind, and whose stature is greater than the nature of the staff itself. That is why the Magi are so dangerous. They are men of Lore, and as such are able to

master whatever Lore they set their minds to. We, however, are not creatures of Lore. Should the

Dark Magi learn to use the staff, we would be revealed to him, and would be completely at his

mercy.’

May frowned. ‘I always thought that Lore and magic were the same thing.’

Gaia shook her head. ‘There are many kinds of Lore. Most have nothing to do with magic at all. Lore is a knowledge; a learned thing that is written in books. It is studied, and understood with exactitude. Lore may make use of magic, but not necessarily. But for creatures like ourselves, magic is a blind, disfocused, instinctive thing. We do not “practice” magic, nor do we strive for control or greater power. We accept things as they are, or to be more precise, we accept that in what surrounds us as we accept that which is also in us. That is what it is to be a creature with magic.

‘A creature of magic, however . . . that is a different tale altogether. Such a creature may be summoned, invoked, influenced, unleashed, changed, or created by Lore. Yet such creatures possess a life of their own, and Loremasters do not have the right to wield such control over them. Such control is an abomination. It is slavery. Therefore it is evil.’

The two women were silent for some time, until May noticed that the others were getting ready to sleep. Alone atop a nearby hill was Bolo’s silhouette, where he kept a silent vigil. May left for a moment, and returned with something in her hand. ‘Ali says that you’re to take a sip of this.’

Gaia stared at her, suspiciously. ‘What is it?’

‘It will help you to sleep,’ May told her. ‘It’s one of Nalu’s concoctions.’

‘I do not want it!’ the mer woman said, defensively.

‘You’ve been moaning in your sleep, having nightmares,’ May told her. ‘At times, you cry out. This is for our safety, as well as your own.’

Guilty, hurt, angry, the mer woman took the phial and took a small sip; she then crawled into her blankets and was soon deep in slumber. May watched her for some time before returning the bottle to Nalu. Ali, who was nearby, laying in his blankets, said, ‘She is asleep?’

May nodded, and crawled into her own blankets.

‘We will reach the mountains in a matter of days,’ Ali told her. ‘There is a problem. There is a road at the bottom of the pass which we must follow. It will be guarded, and there will be traffic of the enemy all along the way. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other way through the mountains. That leaves us but two choices; to risk the road, or to cross over the mountains. The danger would be lessened somewhat, should we take the mountain crossing, but the delay would be great.’

May felt her spirits sag, and lay on her back, staring upwards at the comfortless stars for a time. ‘For myself, I would rather risk the dangers of the mountains, than risk becoming trapped on a narrow valley road, delay or no. Undoubtedly the Dark Magi uses that road to move his armies. There will be checkpoints and concealed spies.’

‘The mountains, too, will be watched,’ Ali replied softly, ‘and not by men, but rather by creatures such as those that were sent against us. Would you prefer to deal with such creatures, alone and far from aid? For such would be our fate, were we to be discovered.’

Ali was soon asleep. But May lay awake for a time.

-

In the morning, May approached the mer woman and asked a question. ‘Are you able to detect the presence of such creatures as attempted us at the caves?’

The mer woman bit her lip in apprehension. ‘It is possible . . . but very dangerous. Were I to falter in my concentration, such creatures would become aware of me. For to be aware of them requires that I be open to their presence, but requires the extra effort of clouding their perceptions. Some of them are very powerful! Were they to become aware of me, the tables would be turned, and it would be I that would fall under their spell. Should that happen . . .’ she blanched, and left the thought unfinished.

May then told her what they faced, not urging her to make the attempt, but making clear to the mer-woman the risks of not doing so. When she was finished, Gaia nodded, her features suffused, and swallowed.

‘I understand. Tell Ali that I . . . I will accept this risk. I, too, see no other way.’

-

By late afternoon the following day they reached the foothills of the mountains. High and forbidding they loomed; rolling, blunt, purple blue, overgrown with stiff bracken, with occasional dark green blotches where dense copses of a tall flowerless variety of broom grew, interspersed with tall stands of cactus. The ground beneath their feet was hard packed earth, bare except for a few sparse and hardy varieties of grasses and wildflowers, which grew singly or in clumps. Small venomless snakes, lizards, birds, and small animals like hopping mice and rabbits, were abundant in the undergrowth. At the least, there would be no shortage of material from which to build a fire, nor would they lack for game.

Before ascending the first slope, however, Gaia stopped a moment to prepare herself, while the others looked on, their features a mixture of doubt, pity, empathy, and concern.

‘The hills are watched,’ she said, finally, in a barely audible voice, ‘but the pass is closely guarded. We could not have gone that way undetected.’

Throwing Ali a vindicated look, May walked at his side, in the lead, as they began the ascent. The others followed, with Gaia protected in their midst.

Using their swords as machetes, Ali and May cut a path through the dense broom that impeded their progress. Their way descended at first, until they came to a dry stony creek bed; then the land rose sharply on the other side, and before long the broom gave out altogether, leaving them

exposed on the wide slope of the mountain, crunching their way through calf-deep, tough, dry, thorny bracken.

The first hill ascended only a matter of some five hundred feet before they reached its summit. Before them lay a bewildering land of similar, random conical hills of varying sizes, stretching from horizon to horizon, and off into the distance to the north for as far as they could see. Ali called a brief halt to consider their course. The land’s appearance was deceiving! Each successive hill rose to a higher elevation than the last. From their perspective, however, the hills ahead appeared no higher than the one they stood atop.

‘I do not like this!’ he muttered. ‘We cannot wend our way along the feet of these hills because of the dense undergrowth. We shall have to strike a balance, passing through the growth at the bottom, working our way part way up each hill, to a point just above these dense thickets, and

skirting each slope. This is going to prove a long and bitter journey. It seems that we can neither

afford nor avoid this delay.’

‘We should not remain here!’ Gaia blurted in an expressionless voice, the focus of her gaze on something unseen. ‘There are eyes . . .’ Her features became strained with effort.

Sensing trouble, Ali said to Vasha, ‘Ward her. Let us go down the other side, to lower ground.’

Once away from the summit, as they made their way down the further slope, Gaia seemed to come out of her private reverie. She put a hand to her temple and almost stumbled, but Vasha steadied her until they reached the copse at the bottom.

‘It’s . . . I’m all right,’ the mer woman said, pulling away. ‘The eyes cannot see us here. But we would do well to pass always along the westward slope. The eyes are yonder  to the east, and to the northeast.’

-

All that day, and well into the night, they wended their way through the hills, until Gaia was almost prostrate from exhaustion. When Ali finally called a halt in the middle of a dense thicket, she lay down and would have gone to sleep on the spot, had not Vasha made her eat and drink first. Even then, Ali would not let her lose herself in sleep until she had ascertained any possible threat. At last, tired and irritable, she rolled herself into her blankets and was instantly asleep.

Bolo smiled at Gaia’s sleeping form approvingly, as they sat around a small fire and made their meal, and set the watch. ‘She grows stronger, even in her weakness. Even she is getting tanned from the sun. Her Sisters will not recognise her, should she return to them. She will have hard hands, and a strong back. Not like them at all. She would return to them a lonely hero.’

‘Then she would be like us,’ Ali said, somewhat reticently. ‘But my heart tells me that . . . should we succeed . . . should she succeed in recovering the Vhurd aq . . . she will not be able to return to her people. They will receive the periapt from her . . . but they will not accept her back as one of their own.’

May frowned. ‘I don’t see why not! They wouldn’t send one of their own on such a mission, only to take from her what she recovered, and then turn her away! Would they?’ she added uncertainly.

‘You do not understand the mer women of the Doloman Islands, if you believe that,’ Vasha said. ‘Gaia was chosen, and to be chosen, for them, means to be sacrificed. Should she succeed, they will take the staff.’ In a lower voice, she added, ‘And then they will kill her.’

If it was May’s plan not to care for the plight of the mer woman, her plan was undone in that instant, whether she realized it or not. ‘What are you talking about? What do you mean, “Kill her?” How  why would they do such a thing?’

‘They would see it as a kindness,’ Vasha told her. ‘She will never again be as they are. As for the “how” . . . upon surrendering the staff, she would kneel before the Queen with her head back, the Queen would take a long, narrow dagger, place the tip of it against the base of her throat where it joins her rib cage, and plunge it straight down, just behind her rib cage, and into her vitals. Twice I have seen this done, and one of the women I saw died horribly, with the hilt of the dagger protruding from the base of her throat; but the wound was not immediately fatal. The ritual forbids any intervention after the blow is struck, and she lay for several hours, writhing in agony, until at last her life mercifully ebbed away.’

‘That is unacceptable!’ May grated, looking ill.

‘That is their way,’ Vasha told her.

‘It is still unacceptable,’ May repeated. ‘It is murder! She can’t just accept this fate. I won’t let her.’

‘Judging by what Vasha has told us, she already has accepted this fate,’ Ali told her. ‘And while I am not going to forbid you from trying to change her mind (for I agree with you, at least in sentiment), still I warn you that you will not succeed. For even if you did change her

mind, when she returned the staff she would be taken by force if she did not submit willingly.’

May did not reply to this, but to herself said, ‘Never! Not while I have breath in my body.’

-

Sometime after midnight, they were awakened by a deep rumble, and the sound of hissing wind. Large drops of rain began to fall, and they laid groundsheets and put up their oilskin tents. Gaia woke briefly as Bolo bore her to a tent. She saw, briefly, Ajab’s silhouette somewhat uphill as he sat hunched over, wrapped in an oilskin cloak against the cold rain and wind, keeping watch.

Before sleep claimed her once more, she found that she shared a tent with Vasha and May, who lay on either side of her. Occasionally, there were blinding flashes of lightening, followed by

deafening peals of thunder, which rolled and boomed and echoed through the hills. The air at

once smelled burnt, and damp like wet stone. She opened her senses for a time, but was met only with the unfocused power of the natural phenomena of nature. Satisfied, at least for the present, she drifted back into slumber.

-

Morning came, hot, stifling, and humid. To her surprise, when Gaia awoke, she found herself curled up against May. The weaponsmaster, who was awake, didn’t seem to mind, however, and without a word, the two women got up and began helping break camp. Several times, Gaia glanced in May’s direction, wondering at the sudden change in the girl’s attitude towards her, but refrained from pursuing it, thinking it but a passing thing.

But late the following day, when it dawned on her that the change was permanent, she took the opportunity to ask, while they stopped to rest and take a meal, slightly away from the others.

‘Why are you being solicitous towards me? You needn’t be, even if Ali has ordered this change in your behaviour.’

‘I am not going to let you be sacrificed once this is over!’ May told her bluntly. She was about to say more, when the mer woman cut her off.

‘There is nothing to be said about it,’ Gaia told her. ‘Even were you to return in my stead, and hand over the Vhurd aq, my Sisters would be aware of my presence, as they are even now, and

they would come for me. For me there is no hiding; there is no escape.’

‘There must be something ’ May protested.

The mer woman smiled without humour. ‘If I were to die attempting to accomplish this deed, then I would be released from my doom. Then would my Power be silenced, and I would be lost to their senses.’

‘This power,’ May ventured, ‘if you were to lose it, would that make you safe from them?’

‘Were I to lose my Power!’ Gaia breathed, clearly taken aback at the thought. ‘Shades! Think what you are saying! If that were to happen, I would be only half a being! Less than half, for I would be left deaf, blind, and dumb, to all that I am, and to the world around me.’

‘I don’t understand,’ May told her. ‘Why can’t they just leave you alone, give you a chance to get back to normal. You will have earned that much, at least!’

‘Once estranged, we do not “get back to normal,” as you are wont to say. The changes to my life are permanent; I cannot unlearn what I have learned, or unexperience what I have experienced, or unthink the course of my thoughts, which differ now from those of my own people. While I live, I am a dangerous distraction to them. As a whole, they will be unable to function. No, things will be as they must. Should I return to my people bearing the Vhurd aq, I will do so, and die. That is how it should be . . . how it must be.’

‘You are wrong!’ May said. ‘It’s murder.’

‘Ah, you refer to the Ritual Sacrifice,’ the mer woman said in comprehension. ‘But you do not grasp the reason it is done in such a manner. It is the Spirit, as much or more than the vitals, which must be carefully impaled, so that it may be silenced forever. It is the clinging to life which causes such agonizing death ’

‘Anyone who does not cling to life,’ May breathed angrily, ‘their one and only life, their tiny, brief existence which empty eternity precedes and follows . . .’ she was too angry to speak for a moment. ‘Anyone who does not fight for their own right, simply to exist, has no right to live

at all!’

‘You speak of what you do not understand,’ the mer woman told her. ‘Allow me to explain this matter in other terms.

‘Some years ago, when I was a child, there was a woman who refused the burden of Sacrifice, fleeing from my people to the far north. Well do I remember her flight, and her journey, and her desperation, for all of us were unable not to share in her plight. She became mad, and fled into the wilderness for a time.

‘Understand, if she haunted our dreams, that was but a pale comparison to the way we haunted hers, for she could not relinquish her own people, nor wholly flee, nor be free from the torment of separation.

‘At last, she seemed to remember herself, enough to reconcile herself to her fate and return to us. Her death was a great release, and a relief to all of us; but most of all to herself. I do not doubt that your words are well meant, but I do not wish to suffer her fate. Don’t misunderstand me; I fear to face the knife at my journey’s end. But that is infinitely preferable to the alternative.’

‘It is still unacceptable,’ May said quietly. ‘I will find another way.’

‘It is not yours to find, even were it possible,’ the mer woman said, kindly.

‘Nevertheless!’ May replied obstinately, ‘I will find a way. Would you not do the same for a friend?’

As May quickly got up and left to take her turn at the watch, Gaia watched her go in dumb surprise, with undercurrents of unfamiliar emotions gripping her throat like a vice.

-

It was fully three weeks into their journey when they crested a hill to take stock of their position. Though the hills were not yet coming to an end, still, far off, they could see the outline of a distant range of high mountains.

‘There is a gap between the end of these hills and those far mountains; a narrow fertile plain through which the Great River flows, and alongside it runs the road,’ Gaia told them. ‘There will be armies passing west along that road, making their way towards Talimar. We must avoid them, at all costs. At some point, we will have no choice but to cross the mountain road, which joins the road along the Great River. The crossing will be perilous; it will be our first great test before we reach the City of Treasures, while lies directly to the East.’

Before May could comment, Ali said, ‘What of these armies? What is their business with Talimar?’

Without inflection, the mer woman replied, ‘The Dark Magi means to systematically crush Talimar, Otar, and Udin. At present, Udin and Talimar are at war. Though they have no might to

withstand that of the City of Treasures, were they to join forces, they would fare better.’

‘What of Otar?’ Nalu asked her.

She sighed. ‘Otar has always remained neutral, though it is by far the strongest of the three countries. But there is some evil at work in Otar, or so I have heard, that is undermining the ability of its leaders to govern. But perhaps May can tell you how difficult it would be to unite those three countries.’

‘It will never happen,’ May said with quiet conviction. ‘Old hatreds between Udin and Talimar run deeper than any threat from the outside. If Talimar is attacked, those of Udin will watch, aid in, and revel in their fall, even at their own peril.’

-

In the dark of night, they stole to the foot of the last hill and hid themselves in a deep copse to rest, and to see what the following day would bring. From the top of the hill they had seen the deep valley of the Great River, and the lights of dwellings along its banks, which lay about a league from where they lay. Gaia alone stood probing with her senses, her features uncertain, but as yet unafraid.

‘I do not understand,’ she muttered in confusion. ‘I sense nothing.’

‘Perhaps there is nothing to sense,’ Ali said as he watched the eastern turn of the valley.

The mer woman shook her head. ‘You do not understand. At the least, I should be able to sense my kinswomen. Something is amiss.’

‘Has something happened to them, do you think?’ asked Nalu.

‘No,’ she replied. ‘As we began our decent into this valley, it felt as though a veil were being drawn over my eyes. I feel as though I am blind.’

‘Almost as though they knew we were coming,’ Ali muttered.

‘No,’ the mer woman said. ‘Say rather that the Dark Magi fears that my people will make some attempt to retrieve the staff, and that he has some knowledge of how to deal with us. We  I was not prepared for this eventuality.’

‘Well,’ Ali said, ‘we can do nothing more for now. Let us sleep, and see what tidings the dawn shall bring.’

-

They awoke to the sound and echo of brash horns, distant and menacing. The source remained unclear for some time, until they noticed dark sails upon the river.

‘Warships,’ Ajab muttered. ‘Ghurdeep and I have seen their like before, but far to the south.’

‘Yes, and they are no doubt making their way to Talimar,’ his brother said. ‘They are evil men, that deal in sorcery of the worst kind. Those who live on the northern coast would do well not to fight those demons. They take no prisoners; not women nor children. Even the innocent they will maim and torture, for pleasure and for sport.’

‘Are they the same as those false merchants who came to Menelodeaon?’ Bain asked.

‘Perhaps,’ Ajab muttered, slowly but uncertainly.

‘They are not,’ said Eric. ‘Those false merchants are from the desert, but of a similar type. I would guess that both have dealings with the Dark Magi, who has increased their limited sorcery.’

‘I believe you are right in this,’ Ali said. ‘Let us follow this copse along the inside. We will move slowly, with the utmost caution. Leave no direction unwatched.’

-

By late afternoon they had reached the valley of the mountain pass and the south road. Almost they thought to attempt to cross, but caution won out, and they decided to wait a day, to see what could be seen.

With the arrival of dawn came the realisation that their caution had saved them. Many soldiers patrolled the road. A short distance away there were several barracks and guardhouses to either side.

‘How the devil are we going to make our way through that?’ Bain muttered, voicing all their concern.

May, who was watching Gaia, said, ‘What is it?’

The mer woman stood rooted to the ground, looking as though she were about to break and run. Her mouth worked, but no sound came.

Vasha turned to Ali with alacrity. ‘We must get her away from this place! Now!’ Taking the mer woman in hand, she turned her away and began walking her back the way they’d come. At

last, the mer woman regained her composure and sat down on the ground, rocking herself and

clutching her temples.

‘Are you all right?’ Ali asked, kneeling before her. ‘Is there anything we can do for you?’

She swallowed, and it was a moment before she could speak. ‘I need to lay down . . . I think I’m going to be sick.’ She was very pale, slick with sweat, and trembling. No sooner had they made her comfortable than she was dead asleep. But only for a matter of an hour. Once wakened, she sat up, drawn and pale. ‘Something watches the crossroads,’ she said with suffused dread. ‘Something powerful. Something watchful. I cannot block it out, or confuse its senses. Were I to try, I would be undone! It would take control, and you would be forced to slay me!’

‘Then we will go the long way around,’ Ali acceded reluctantly. ‘I do not like this! The land all about is exposed; there is no cover between the road and the river, nor from the foothills to the lands surrounding the crossroads. We will just have to move quickly after dark, and pray that we are not seen.’

‘Perhaps we should make straight for the river bank, where the ground is lower, and make our way upstream from there,’ Vasha suggested. ‘The river is probably the least watched of the passages here.’

Gaia frowned. ‘I do not trust this river. I do not understand its ways. It is not as the sea, open and familiar to me. I feel it to be as a snake, long, dark, and watchful, and alive with purpose.’ She turned to face the others with her doubt. ‘You do not understand, but the river is awake, in a way that the sea is not. Though the sea can be very dangerous in its wrath, it is a just wrath. This river stinks of ill.’

‘Then what do you suggest?,’ Ali said, dryly. ‘We cannot fly, nor, it seems, can we chance to make our way near the crossroad for fear of being seen. If we do not follow near to the river, then the crossing over open ground is the risk we will have to take.’

‘I do not counsel,’ the mer woman said in a sullen, affronted tone. ‘You asked my for my observation, and I gave it. Do you blame me for what I see?’

‘No,’ he replied, ‘I question your interperatation of the facts, as I must in this situation, for I must judge between dangers here. As I see it, there is no choice but to risk the river. And how dangerous could such an undertaking be, if ships travel freely along its course, as we have seen? I

do not say this out of spite, but you have given me nothing of substance on which to base a

decision.’

‘Nothing of substance?’ she muttered, indicating the blank heavens. ‘Would you say the same of the light of day, or the air we breath, or matters of the heart? Nothing of substance say you? Well, lead on then! I will follow, even should you walk into the waiting arms of the enemy, or some other fatal danger. It is all the same to me, at least, for come what may, my fate is sealed!’

Ali sighed and studied her face as though searching for some clue that would help them. The others stood about uncomfortably, wondering which way things would turn.

‘There is at least one other option,’ Vasha offered. ‘Certain of our number might create a diversion, offering the others a better chance to slip past the watchers of the road.’

‘That is not an option,’ Ali replied, quietly. ‘If Gaia is correct, then those of us who created the diversion wouldn’t have a chance; as well, the Enemy is no fool; he would suspect a diversion, and would scour the roadway between here and the City of Treasures until the rest of us were caught.’

Gaia raised her head at this. ‘There may yet be a way.’

8

Irena was almost as apprehensive about meeting Niia’s and Nil’s friends as she was about setting

foot out of doors. She was just getting used to her new home, and the bedroom she shared with Niia and Una, and being part of a family. She didn’t feel herself to be ready for outsiders yet, or the outside. She wanted to be close to Ander and T’cha, her new parents, as much as possible.

The emotional dam had burst the night she’d wakened with nightmares, and stumbled into their room. To have a mother and father there to comfort her, to dry her tears, to take her into their bed for the night and keep her safe and warm, had given her profound release, healing parts of her that had lain dormant since she was a small child. And she had wept like an hysterical child, and clung to them shamelessly, without guilt, without feeling foolish or weak or wretched. Only loved, with gentle, patient forbearance. Oh, what it was to feel loved!

They’re here! Irena, come on! You’re not even ready!’ Niia burst in on her reverie and began searching through her closet and drawers. ‘You’re not even packed!’ Sensing Irena’s reticence, Niia set to packing what Irena would be needing for the next few days. Irena moved to help, but was stymied by Niia’s much practised, lightning fast ordering of her affairs. ‘What are you watching me for? Come, get dressed!’

Irena went to the closet, and stared in frustration. She hadn’t yet been outside, and wasn’t certain what she needed to wear. What was this? A big sock with a hole in it? And what was this? Grey knit pajamas? She meanwhile heard Niia run downstairs, and say to someone, ‘She’ll be down in a few minutes. I know. Well . . . then go see if you can hurry her up.’

Irena tried laying things out, frustrated. Niia had told her a number of times what everything was for, but all these garments were so strange to her, and she’d never worn them.

‘Niia said you might need some help.’

Irena turned . . . and stared.

He was very tall, with the carriage of an athlete. His dark blonde hair was dishevelled from the hat he’d worn. He was at least four years her senior, and bore himself with the maturity of an adult.

‘We haven’t met, but I’m Jan’s brother, Thair. You know? Jan is Acton’s girlfriend.’ When she said nothing, he entered the room, smiling, examining the clothes she’d laid out. He handed her

the long grey knit hose she thought was pajamas. ‘You’ll need to put these on, first, over your

underwear.

Shyly, she discarded her robe and pulled them on over her undergarments.

‘Now these.’

She pulled on the pair of socks he handed her.

‘And these.’

Another pair of socks, but thicker and heavier.

‘And these.’

A strange looking pair of calf length slippers that laced up the front.

‘Next, you’ll need these . . .’

She donned the thick, down filled pants that were held up with suspenders.

‘And this.’

The matching padded jacket.

‘Now comes the hard part.’ He pulled a heavy, one piece garment off its hanger, unbuttoned the flaps that folded across three times, and held it open by the waist. ‘Turn around with your back to me. Step in here, and I’ll do you up.’

As she stepped into the garment, he literally lifted her off the ground and jerked a few times, until she slid into place. He then turned her around and arranged the flaps. The sock with the hole came next. To her surprise, it went over her head, was tucked under her collar, and left only her face showing.

And then, he tucked in her stray hair, smoothed it under her cowl, and stepped back to consider her for several long moments. She, too, could only stare, her heart pounding.

‘Would you like to ride with me?’ he asked, suddenly.

She was to have ridden with Nils, but found herself replying automatically, ‘Yes.’ Then, it occurred to her what she’s done, and she blurted, ‘Well . . . but . . . I already promised Nils ’

‘Nils is taking Una, just as he always does,’ Thair said firmly. ‘Come, let’s get you into your snowsuit, and we’ll be on our way.’

-

Nils seemed disappointed, but not overly put out when he learned of the arrangements. His younger sister, Una, after all, had traditionally been his responsibility.

The youths left together, shouldering their packs and closing the door behind them. Several of them Irena had never met before. They were friends of Niia and Nils, five boys and four girls.

Irena found herself falling into step with Thair, with Una tagging along behind them. Before

leaving the house, Thair had helped her into the heavy fur lined snowsuit, fur lined boots, knit

mask, mitts and goggles she now wore. It felt as heavy and cumbersome as armour, though she was warm and snug enough.

They walked all the way back the way she’d first entered Port Brun, all the way to the ice wall. But instead of walking right through, they turned right some distance before the entrance, and made their way down a long corridor.

At last they came to a pair of wooden sliding doors. Thair opened these, the fourteen of them stepped through, and Thair shut the doors behind them. There, arranged in rows on the ice floor with sails furled, were dozens of skiffs.

Thair and the other boys opened an outer door, letting in the howling wind, and pairing up, they pushed seven skiffs out the door, into the howling gale, and shut the door and Port Brun behind

them.

The others, all old hands, quickly stuffed their belongings into the nose and tails of the skiffs, jumped in, closed the cockpit, raised the sail, and were off. Irena watched as Thair stuffed their cargo behind the seat, urged her into the cockpit, and squeezed in behind her, so that she practically lay before him. Then, he closed the cockpit with a thump, making the ambience very

close, he began turning a ratchet that raised the sail, the wind suddenly caught, he took hold of the steering wheel as they began to move, and they were off!

The others were far ahead of them at first, but Thair closed the distance within moments. They formed a line, then, finished cranking up the sails, turned at a sharper angle against the wind, and 

‘Don’t worry! Relax. These skiffs can go a lot faster than this.’ He reached around her and set a marker on a compass mounted conveniently before them.

Irena swallowed, and settled back against him. She was acutely aware of the intimacy of their position, and found herself wondering if he noticed, himself. Unlike the rail ships, the tiny skiffs felt every blemish in the terrain, and Irena noticed for the first time that the ice, though flat as glass, was different than it first seemed.

‘It doesn’t feel like ice,’ she remarked at last. ‘It feels . . . strange.’

‘You’re very perceptive,’ Thair said approvingly. ‘You’re right. It’s ice and a mixture of minerals . . . a sort of frozen foam. Except it’s rock hard. Look! There’s the lighthouse.’

Irena looked ahead in wonder. Five miles away there rose a conical tower, unmistakeably a light beacon. As they drew near, she could see that it was absolutely enormous, and surrounded by docks. It passed on their right, and she watched until it was out of sight.

At the furthest extent of her vision, there seemed to be a mist on the horizon.

‘Is that a storm ahead,’ she asked him, concerned.

‘That’s our destination,’ Thair told her cryptically.

‘Why is it cloudy like that?’

‘You’ll see.’

She sighed. For the past several days she had plied Niia and Nils with questions about their intended destination. T’cha, unfortunately, knew nothing, and no one would enlighten her,

including Ander and Una.

Fine.

‘Niia tells me you’re good with swords, that she saw you practising with two. That’s an unusual technique. It’s called antupelé where you’re from, isn’t it?’

Surprised, Irena replied, ‘How did you know?’

‘I’m green badge. Working towards long knife underhand.’

‘So am I!’

‘That’s what your mother told me. She said you were small, but that you were very fast. I’d like you to come out to our practices sometime. I need a doubles partner for the competitions. Someone short and fast ’

‘For riatapelé?’ Irena blurted excitedly.

Thair nodded. ‘Four blades as one. It’s hard finding a partner who can do it.’

‘It’s a lot of work . . . and a big commitment . . .’ Irena’s voice trailed off in sudden embarrassment and confusion.

‘Most riatapelé teams become partners for life,’ Thair said, completing her thought. ‘Who knows? Perhaps we’re destined for fame and glory together.’

‘I’m hungry,’ she said, pointedly changing the subject.

Chuckling quietly, he placed the pack containing their snacks into her hands.

-

As the line of cloud drew closer, Irena could see that it seemed to issue in great white billowing

columns. The ground was rising steadily, and the line of skiffs slowed to a fraction of their former speed as the sails were lowered somewhat, though the wind had abated to a stiff breeze. The ice surface was becoming irregular, though it retained its overall smoothness. But it seemed to flow in great ripples, like frozen, liquid glass. Ahead of them rose a high ridge, and they raised the sails once more as their line of skiffs began to climb. At last, Irena could see that they were on a well worn roadway cut into the side of the hill, and it was an hour or more before they ascended to the top and came to a flat area that was surrounded on all sides by an ice wall. But this ice wall was different . . . it looked to be a natural land formation.

Irena stared in surprise at the number of skiffs already there.

‘It’s busy today,’ Thair said with a smile as he dropped the sail and they coasted to a stop.

When he popped open the cockpit, Irena had to struggle out of his lap and out onto the ice. She stood leaning against the skiff a few moments as she got her legs back. To her surprise, everyone was removing their headgear and throwing back their hoods.

‘What on earth?’ She followed suit. To her amazement, the air hardly felt cold at all. The others were opening forward and rear compartments on their skiffs, removing tents, supplies and gear. Taking her lead from Thair, she shouldered a pair of packs, and carried a bundled tent before her. He hoisted a heavy, laden pack onto his back, closed up the skiff, and bore a groundsheet and

heavy sleeping bag in his arms. The others were likewise encumbered, and they began moving

towards a gap at the far side of the enclosure.

Irena stepped though this, and gaped.

Before her lay a dank, green, dripping forest, unlike anything she had ever seen. Steam vents were everywhere, and soon her hair was wet and plastered down. She began to worry that her clothes would become damp, but after a time the air became even warmer, and finally, quite dry.

The forest now often gave way to tall grassy fields and mounds of black, volcanic stone that radiated dry heat. The needles of the highest trees were coated with a rheum of ice. Tiny white, pink, green, pale blue and yellow flowers showed through the undergrowth. Small, noisy birds thrashed about through the dead leaves, chattering at the intruders. Something crashed in the distance, and Irena watched as a number of huge, wide horned beasts melted into the forest.

‘Welcome to Grimming Veldt,’ Thair said, smiling at Irena’s wide eyed wonder. ‘This is where much of our foodstuffs come from.’

‘Where is all this heat coming from?’ Irena asked him suspiciously. ‘We’re not on top of a volcano, are we? Is this a good idea?’

The other’s chuckled at this. ‘It’s like this all underneath the North Country,’ Niia told her. ‘This is just one of the hot spots.’

‘You mean there are more of them? How big is this one? How far does it go?’

‘Each Veldt is unique,’ Thair told her. ‘No two are alike in size, terrain, or plant and animal life.

‘This one, Grimming Veldt, goes on for hundreds of miles. The Central Plain is where we hunt and get much of our meat.’

‘Do people live here?’ Irena wondered, thinking it would make sense to live in such a place, if food were plentiful.

‘There are Gaming Prefects and Veldt Wardens,’ Thair told her. ‘They have buildings set up at regular intervals. They stay here for weeks, sometimes months at a time, but none of them live

here.’

‘Why not?’

‘Simple conservation,’ he told her. ‘Too much human contact is isn’t good for the Veldts. Faerie Veldt has been off limits ’

‘Faerie Veldt? As in Elves, and Little People?’

Thair chuckled at this. ‘As in the Ice Dancers. They’re . . . I’m not sure what they are, exactly. They look like they’re made of ice. Except they’re not. They’re small, about the size of your hand. Like snowflakes, no two are exactly alike. They’re very light, and very fragile, and people used to catch them and put them inside domed display cases, and leave them around for show. They’d last a year or two before they’d finally stop moving and turn to mineral dust.

‘But the Ice Dancers began to become fewer and fewer, until it was decided that taking them should be made illegal.’

‘But what are they, exactly?’ Irena persisted, finding herself unable to conjure a mental image from Thair’s descriptions. ‘Do they really dance? Do they have arms and legs?’

Thair exchanged a look with the others, obviously looking for help, but received shrugs and “Don’t ask me” grimaces instead.

They had come to an odd looking sort of forest, but what Irena saw made her stop and stare. What she had thought were trees were really primaeval looking ferns, or tall grass like plants, or both or neither.

‘You’d just have to see them for yourself,’ Thair said brusquely, then, ‘We’re at the edge of the Veldt, now. That path,’ he nodded towards a well worn track skirting the forest to the left, ‘leads to a Station House, and that’s where we’ll be staying when we’re not out on the Veldt, hunting.’

Irena wanted to ask more about the Ice Dancers, but the forest was so captivating that she lingered a moment, savouring the air. She had never smelled anything so pristine, she thought, like the cool, tingly mountain air of her home in Udin, but somehow more profound, denser, more pronounced.

There were several species of flora, the most prevalent being a fern like tree of uniform height, perhaps thirty feet. Beneath and between these was a variety of tall bamboo like grass, fifteen to twenty feet tall. And there were stands of shrubs that seemed loaded with dark red nodules that looked to be very hard, and others with flowers from which a cascade of tiny black bulbs hung from white tendrils.

‘Those red things are called cherry seeds,’ Thair told her, breaking off a clump and passing her a

few. They were hard and chewy, sweet, yet nut like. He pulled some of the tiny black bulbs from

their tendrils and handed her a few. ‘Lily nuts. They’re not nuts, of course, nor are they lilies, but

that’s what they’re called, I guess because they do look a bit like lily bulbs.’ Irena found them just shy of bitter, yet with a sort of chewy, evergreen taste.

At last, they came to a dark place overhung from the left with tall weeping evergreens. The Station House was four storeys high, constructed of enormous, heavy logs, blackened and mildewy with age. Before them rose a wide staircase that ascended to the second storey, then turned right onto a huge deck that was built right out over the Veldt.

To Irena’s delight, the deck turned out to be covered with chairs and tables filled mostly with young people like themselves. Several of them waved to Thair and called his name. Beside more than a few, Irena noted, lay discarded winter outer clothes.

She followed the others as they turned left, and into an enormous cafeteria in which far fewer people sat, except by the windows, front and back. There looked to be a back balcony as well, that was not currently in use.

Midway through the cafeteria they turned right, walked the length of a short corridor, then ascended a flight of stairs that split left and right. They turned to the right, to the right again,

walked a long way down a dark, unlighted hallway like a tunnel, and turned to the left through an

open doorway.

The whole entire area was a huge dormitory lined with rows of low wooden cots. At the front was a long, continuous window, and a spectacular view of the Veldt. Irena could only stare in awe. It seemed to go on forever!

Thair selected a cot and tossed their gear onto it, then relieved Irena of her burdens and helped her out of her winter clothes. She was self conscious about stripping down to her underwear, but as everyone else was in varying states of undress, she tried to accept it and changed as quickly as possible.

‘Are you coming with us to the gaming rooms?’ Nils asked her, all too obviously looking for an opening.

For some reason she found herself looking to Thair for help. With a small smile, he said to Nils, ‘We’re going to the cafeteria. We’ll catch up with you in a while.’

‘In a while? When, exactly?’

Giving Irena a secretive smile, Niia grabbed her brother by the sleeve and led him away.

Irena was acutely aware that she was now alone with Thair, except for a few strangers of whom she was only marginally aware, and that her eyes were level with his chest. She felt her ears turn crimson, and found herself unable to look up at him. Why was he standing so close to her? She

gasped involuntarily when he took her hand, alarmed because she was trembling and couldn’t

control it, and realised in the same breath that simply by touching her, he would know this of her.

‘Come. Let’s get something to eat. I’ve been listening to your stomach growling all morning.’

Instead of taking her to the cafeteria counter, he seemed to understand something, even if she herself didn’t, and led her to a spot out on the deck with a good view.

‘Would you like lunch or breakfast? They also make a cold plate with sliced sausage and cheese and crackers, and pickled fruits and vegetables.’

‘That sounds . . . I think . . . well . . . whatever you want . . . think is best ’

He smiled as she fumbled her words, put her hand to his lips, turned it over and kissed her palm, closed it, and said quietly, ‘I’ll be right back.’

Irena gaped as she watched him go. All he’d done was kissed her hand! Why had that act seemed so intimate? Why was her stomach so full of butterflies? Belatedly, she noticed several people nearby watching her reaction and smiling. She put her hands to her cheeks, which by their hot feeling she was sure were crimson, and tried averting her attention to Grimming Veldt.

The sight was enough to consume her attention. Well . . . some of it. She noticed for the first time that large birds flew high overhead. They looked to be some type of hawk. However, she soon found herself staring at her hand where Thair had kissed it. Was it just her imagination, or could she still feel that intimate touch?

The sound of a tray being deposited on the table brought her back into the moment. Thair was watching her with a quizzical expression.

‘There’s a whole wide world out there, and you’re staring at your hand.’

‘Maybe that’s where my whole world is right now ’ she blurted automatically, and caught herself  too late.

But Thair didn’t smile at her. His look changed, and she found that she was afraid of his sudden distance.

He took a deep breath . . . and then seemed to relax once more. And smiled at her, to put her at ease.

‘Let’s not talk about personal things, at least for now.’

She was about to say something, when he took a cracker, topped it with cheese and sausage, and placed it in her mouth.

She found that this was every bit as intimate as his having kissed her hand; more so, in some ways.

They ate in silence, and somehow, as they did so, Irena found herself having moved over on the bench until she was against Thair, with both her arms clutched tightly around him, face pressed to his chest, his arms securely and comfortably around her . . .

-

They saw little of the others over the next several days. And when it came time to go back, Irena

found herself facing a nameless, empty dread. When Thair finally took her home, she was hardly

aware that Ander, T’cha and the others were standing right there when Thair kissed her good bye . . . and when he’d gone and the doors were closed, she turned to T’cha, threw herself in the

woman’s arms, and began bawling.

‘You’ll see him at Rydan Practice Hall mid week,’ T’cha said reassuringly.

‘I don’t care! That’s days from now!’

T’cha and Ander exchanged a long look. Ander sighed, and began putting on his outdoor clothes.

‘I’ll have a talk with the boy’s parents.’ He gave Irena a wry glance. ‘Perhaps some sort of arrangement is in order.’

‘Ander!’ T’cha protested. ‘She’s so young!’

‘That’s not necessarily a bad thing,’ he told her, seriously.

-

Irena’s second trip to Rydan Hall came as a great comfort, she found. She badly needed a break from the new pressures of living on her own with Thair and being married to him. She was trying far too hard to be a good wife and homemaker, but Thair didn’t seem to mind, and returned to their new home from the wood mill each day, smelling strongly of clean new wood and sap, glad to be alone with his new wife. Irena worked three days a week at the South Gate Market, which was located in a red wooden warehouse, right next to the ice wall amid the south docks.

At the Hall, the two began working out their riatapelé routine using balanced practice swords with regulation, razor-sharp blades. Standing close together, she just slightly forward, they began working out the complex patterns and interplay, the quarter turn, back to back, defensive stance, the darting, dancing, weaving.

The “long knife underhand” style was very difficult, and more difficult still to incorporate. It involved holding the swords so that they hung downwards at first, then were held upright by

drawing the hands towards the shoulders.

They set to work immediately , incorporating this style with a changeup to another style called “two hands scissors,” in which each pair of swords was flashed through a series of interlocking X , Y, L, II shaped and other patterns.

The two young people worked together as one, protecting each other’s unguarded areas, setting up an impenetrable barrier of flashing, lethal ribbons of razor sharp steel.

By the end of the session, something clicked, and they went through the pattern, faster and faster, until their interlocked blades were become a silvery, whistling blur. At last, there was the slightest contact, a tiny ping as their blades touched, and they stopped at once to rest their aching arms 

-and gaped at the sudden applause coming from the crowd that had gathered to watch them.

-

Their instructor, a tall, dark, lean, short bearded man, approached the two as they sat on a bench, gulping water from an earthenware decanter, and discussing the next stage of their practice regimen.

‘There are two young couples like yourselves,’ he told them as he seated himself, ‘who practice at Kyter Hall. Together. They’re looking for a third pair.’

Irena and Thair exchanged a look.

‘A triaphila!’ Thair breathed. ‘We could enter the competitions at Rys Hall! It’s not far from our home.’ He caressed his young wife’s face as he said, this, her hand over his.

The instructor cleared his throat to get their attention. ‘I will make the necessary arrangements and let you know. I think it probable that you will meet next mid week at Rys Hall, an hour after the supper hour.’

-

‘Why’d she have to go and marry Thair, anyway?’ Nils grumbled as he set the table.

T’cha smiled to herself as she opened the door of the heavy iron stove.

‘Can I help?’ Una asked her, mitts at the ready.

‘Thair has been working at the wood mill for five years,’ Niia reminded her twin brother as she washed the salad vegetables. ‘He can afford a wife. Besides, what do you know about rapa whatever you call it?’

‘Okay, careful . . . not too fast,’ T’cha told the girl as the two of them took the heavy iron roaster from the oven and set it on the metal rack protecting the counter top.

‘I’m good with a javelin!’ Nils countered. ‘And a crossbow. What good is a sword, except if you can get in close?’

‘It’s what Irena wants to do, and so does Thair,’ Una taunted as she helped lay out the meat and vegetables on the serving platter, and licked her thumb as she got meat juice on it. ‘Besides,

whatever happened to that girl who works at the cooperage?’

‘Niia, would you tell your father supper’s ready?’ T’cha interjected.

‘Prie? What about her.’

Una gave him a look. ‘Maybe someone should tell her you’re not interested in her any more.’

‘You wouldn’t dare!’

‘Who is Prie?’ T’cha asked him, tactfully making him face reality.

‘She was sort of my girlfriend,’ he muttered.

‘Sort of? Either she is or she isn’t.’

He sighed. ‘Well . . . I guess she still is.’

-

T’cha found her husband’s warehouse with some difficulty. It lay at the end of the South Docks, to the east, and was tucked in behind a constricted knot of buildings that faced each other inward. She had to ask for directions several times before successfully navigated her way to her goal. Ander had asked her to join him in the early afternoon without giving a reason, and she was

understandably curious.

She found him in an upstairs office with a burley, heavy set, bearded man, dressed in foreign looking garb. On a table between them was what looked to be a long, heavy telescope tube made of steel, at least ten feet long, with some sort of brass mechanism and heavy spring mount at one end. They were discussing several parts that lay about, including several brass cylinders from which protruded what looked to be pointed steel dowels.

‘T’cha,’ Ander told her carefully upon seeing her, ‘this is an associate of mine from the island of Brannigwaith. Araman, this is my wife, T’cha, the woman I was telling you about.’

T’cha and the stranger stared at each other mistrustfully. ‘Brannigwaith? I had heard that the inhabitants had dealings only with the Otari.’

‘And I have never before heard of a Udin woman being taken into the confidence of my associates,’ Araman rejoined, his look straying to Ander.

‘She is an engineer,’ Ander stated, in such a way that T’cha realised this had something to do with their earlier conversation. ‘And though her skills have never been used for this purpose, I’m more than certain that they may be adapted.’

Araman gave her a speculative look, sighed, and shrugged. ‘If the intricate tools made by those of Woren County can be of use, then I should like to see it demonstrated.’

T’cha looked to her husband for explanation. ‘What tools?’

Ander shook his head. ‘This is something new. These cylinders go in here.’ He chose one and slid it into the base of the telescope like tube and closed up the end. ‘A rod is then inserted, thus.’ He selected a thin black rod a foot long and inserted it into a hole in the base, so that it protruded a good eight inches. ‘A fire is touched to the rod, which burns, instantly. When the fire reaches the cylinder, the contents burst into fire with great force, pushing the metal projectile out through the tube. The projectile travels too fast to be seen, and will travel up to five miles ’

Five miles!’ T’cha blurted. ‘Is that possible?’

‘It is not only possible,’ Ander told her quietly, ‘but I have seen it for myself.’

As she digested this, Araman spoke up.

‘At any distance within its reach, the projectile will punch its way through two feet of solid oak. But there are several problems with this weapon ’

T’cha stared in sudden comprehension. ‘A weapon! To fend off the enemy ships?’

Araman smiled ruefully at this. ‘That is the problem. As great a distance as this device can hurl its projectiles, it is neither very accurate, nor is it possible to handle its mechanism for any length of time. It becomes very hot. Then there is the problem of hitting a moving target. We have not been able to do so with success, except purely by chance.’

T’cha moved around the table to study the device and its components. After a moment, she asked Araman to disassemble the device completely so that she could better understand and study its components.

As she did so, Ander and Araman resumed their former discussion and began walking unhurriedly toward the door.

In a low voice, Araman said, ‘The Otari managed to set fire to the last wave of ships that attempted to land, but eventually they will succeed. The Talimari have been sent to the rear; their

soldiers have become too disheartened to continue the fight. Their people should begin arriving

soon. What will be done with them?’

‘Shelters are being prepared along the ice field near Dawnton’s Landing,’ Ander told him. ‘The provisions are already in place. After that, we will begin the process of finding billets for them.’

‘But what will happen when Udin falls? You risk civil unrest once the two populations meet.’

Ander sighed. ‘Whatever happens, nothing will remain as it was. Even should the refugees one day regain their homelands, they will find them laid waste. What of Brannigwaith? Is it still your intent to hold out?’

‘My husband,’ T’cha interrupted, just as they reached the door.

‘Yes?’ The two men stopped and turned about.

‘I have solved the problem of the mechanism. But several changes are needed, and a different type of carriage. And the tube itself should be machined. As to striking a moving target, I will need a working model from which to derive the necessary formulas ’

Araman moved with alacrity to her side, followed by Ander, and both stared at the drawings she’d sketched on the tabletop with a charcoal pencil.

‘As I told you,’ Ander said, placing an arm around his wife, ‘if there was a way, she would find it.’

There was a fire in Araman’s eyes, however, that had another source entirely.

‘If we can build enough of these in time, then we of Brannigwaith will remain.’

Ander gaped at him. ‘You will last only as long as we can provide you with these bursting cylinders!’

‘That is why you must not fail,’ Araman told him. Turning to T’cha, he added, ‘And that is why you must train the future operators of these devices to sink enemy ships. For they will come by

sea, and Brannigwaith must become and remain the point of muster.’

T’cha was silent for several moments, her features suffused. At last, very quietly, she said to Ander, ‘I have just realised a thing. It is very important. Decisively so. We must locate Dielu, and finding her, I must ask her . . .’ She closed her eyes, as though in pain. ‘I must tell her to divulge the workings of the Secret Navigator’s Art.’ She sighed, and went to her husband’s ready embrace. ‘She will not forgive me for this.’

9

Father Adrian studied the movements of the Otari forces as they made preparations to halt the

advance of the Dark Magi’s Imperial Army. The bottleneck they had chosen was narrow, a scant

thirty feet, bordered by the sea to the right and a cliff of rock to the left. They had felled many

trees, and were in the process of erecting a barrier of twenty foot long sharpened wooden stakes.

Behind this they erected barriers to protect two hundred archers, every one a marksman.

The shoreline was littered with broken, blackened debris, and dead bodies, almost all of which belonged to one of the Imperial Army’s naval fleets.

There was no sign of Udin’s soldiers. And the Otari army . . . they were unpredictable. And dangerous. Instead of being separated into squads to watch for the next wave of Imperial ships, they had turned their attention to the search for spies.

Neither King Hurkin nor King T’Argot had been seen for many days. Not since Hurkin had gone on a rampage, first slaying every Imperial Convert in his household, and then turning his attentions to the rival houses.

Father Adrian shook his head, still unable to believe the extent to which he’d underestimated the lengths to which Hurkin would go.

‘By his own hand he has slain his wife and his own flesh and blood! No matter. They are but untimely sent to Paradise.’

He shifted his position for a better view. He was high up a rocky slope, overlooking the north end of the bottleneck, leaning against a knee of rock that concealed his whereabouts.

The sudden blare of a horn startled him. Its brash wail trailed off in a cascade of modulating echoes that rang and tintinabulated off the hills above. It was answered by another. And another. And yet another. And then there arose an ear splitting din of voices and a thunder of drums that made the very earth tremble with the promise of violence.

Like the frenetic writhings of a great black snake, the Dark Magi’s Imperial Army came hurtling down the narrow trail towards the barrier, serrated, black iron scimitars flailing like the rabid, snarling jaws of some great gangrel animal bred to a single purpose  to rend and to kill.

Father Adrian’s eyes widened as the ground tilted at their feet, sending the first wave tumbling into pits of sharpened stakes. The Imperial Army came on, relentless, heedless, choking the pits with dead until those following were wading through the writhing limbs of the maimed and dying. They reached and began climbing the barbaric wall of sharpened stakes 

It took Father Adrian a moment to realise the reason their progress was halted. The entire pile of stakes seemed to be covered in grease! The men slipped and fell under the driving feet of their fellows, who used the hapless fallen as a platform from which to attempt their own ascent . . .

Shaken, Father Adrian found himself turning away, sickened by the horrific carnage. He had assumed that Otar would fall in a day. Yet the infidels were possessed of a resolve that defied

belief!

Defied belief . . .’ he mused to himself, sick at heart, wondering at the irony of those words. ‘If only Father Black were here to witness such defiance!’

A new sound caught his attention, and again he raised himself to watch the Imperial Army’s progress. They had crested the barrier! But they were tumbling haplessly into a thicket of sharpened stakes. And still they came, until those who miraculously survived the fall were left trying to force a way through the waist high stakes as thick as a man’s arm. They began hewing at the wood with their swords 

Instantly, there came a well placed trickle of arrows, injuring but not killing the frontrunners, so that they impeded those behind them. Still, the Imperial Army surged forward, until they had choked the barrier so sufficiently with dead that they began to progress towards the archers.

Father Adrian watched with anticipation now, sensing that the archers’ stand would be short lived.

The trickle of arrows became a hail of missiles, then, hurled with deadly accuracy. And the mighty Imperial Army of the Dark Magi, though outnumbering the archers five hundred to one, somehow, impossibly, stood at bay. Some of their number began hurling javelins and knives at their hidden tormenters, but these either fell short or stuck like pins in the well constructed barriers.

A wisp of smoke caught Father Adrian’s attention, and he moaned in dread anticipation.

‘No, No, NO! Get out of there! You fools! Do you not realise the danger?’

As though in answer to his thoughts, from behind two barriers came arcing missiles of fire. A few stuck into bodies impaled on the barrier. Some found their mark, biting with a woody THUNK into the greased stakes.

Whatever sort of grease the Otari had used, it burst at once into oily, smoking yellow flame, that roiled and writhed sickly in the air. Horrific screams filled the air as the Imperial soldiers breathed the acrid, burning fumes that burned lungs and blinded eyes.

Gnashing his teeth in helpless rage, Father Adrian watched as the Otari archers calmly withdrew to a safe distance, and watched as the pyre became a roaring inferno.

‘You will pay for this! You would have been offered Conversion and Paradise had you surrendered or been defeated. I can see now that only your annihilation will suffice!’

A few optimistic carrion fowl had been circling high overhead, but left in frustration as they realised that no meal was forthcoming.

-

Erin found his young wife speaking quietly with two of her kinsmen, two men from Woren County who knew her family. She looked oddly out of place standing before the uniformed soldiers, attired as were his sisters, Gina and Rhian, in quilted jacked and layered winter dress, wearing a fur hat, both hands thrust inside her fur muff.

The forest clearing was illuminated by a single huge bonfire so hot it turned the nearest snow to slush. The trunks of the great trees loomed about them like the walls of some great cathedral, the forest canopy high above a dark, all concealing guess. T’li looked a small, vulnerable figure, her upturned face suffused with concern. At last, she turned to where her husband waited, said a few

final words, embraced the two men, and left them.

Erin was seated on a log, watching the night sky. T’li tacitly joined him, sought his embrace.

‘What’s wrong?’ He wrapped his arms comfortably around her.

‘Udin has been attacked. The Talimari have joined in, now that their families have been evacuated north. I’m sorry, Erin, but your friend Dein has been killed. He died defending a Udin family. He . . . he was buried with honour. His death has done much to assuage the doubt of my countrymen.’

Erin was silent for several long moments. At last, he swallowed, and said thickly, ‘Is there any news of Marl?’

She nodded into his shoulder. ‘He has been watching the shores by night. Twice now he has led charges against the enemy ships. My countrymen . . . they respect him.’

‘He is a good man,’ Erin told her. ‘One of the best.’

They were disturbed by the sound of approaching feet. Erin disengaged himself and stood up to his full height. It was Uman the maid, from the former House of Hurkin.

‘All is ready, Sir. Gina and Rhian are already safely aboard.’

Now that it had come down to it, T’li balked, turned to her husband, pleading.

‘I want to stay with you!’

He shook his head, firmly. ‘I cannot do my part here, knowing that you are in danger.’

‘But ’

‘Nothing remains to be discussed in this matter,’ he told her, perhaps too forcefully. ‘You will depart now with Uman! Please, don’t cry. Don’t. I will come back to you.’ He gave her a look of such rueful valour that her throat ached at the sight. ‘Nothing on Heaven and Earth will prevent

me from seeing our child come safely into this world.’ He turned to Uman, who had taken the

young woman firmly by the arm.

Before he could speak, Uman smiled with fond understanding. ‘Go, now. Your father is waiting.’

T’li tried to disentangle herself from the maid’s hold, to follow her husband, but Uman held her back until Erin was lost to them in the dark.

With a strangled cry, T’li fell to her knees and wept.

-

As the schooner came in sight of the dark mass on the horizon that was the island of Brannigwaith, she was joined by an escort of warships that led her to an awaiting square-rigger, a great hulk of a cargo-ship whimsically named the Ice Queen. The schooner came alongside and tied up, and in the light of early dawn, the four women, Rhian, Gina, Uman and T’li, struggled up the steep gangplank with their belongings. They were about to enter the aft section where they would be quartered when a sudden cry brought them up short.

T’li? Is that you? Kira, look! Isn’t that your niece?’

The three Udin women left what they were doing to greet and appraise the young woman, and to exhange introductions with her companions.

‘Why are you dressed in such strange attire?’

‘Married? To an Otari man? How on earth did that come to pass ’

They were intrurrupted by captain Danver, who cleared his throat to get their attention.

‘Perhaps you should continue this discussion after we’re under way. We’re to depart with all possible speed.’

With reluctant alacrity, his three young crewwomen scurried back to their posts. With a small smile, Danver said to T’li and her companions, ‘Once you are settled in your quarters, and we’re under way, if you find yourselves in the galley, I’m sure those three will somehow find the time to join you.’

-

Their tiny quarters consisted of very narrow bunks set against both walls, a pair of wooden lockers, bronze hangers on the wall to either side of the door, and a single bronze porthole facing the rear of the ship.

‘There isn’t enough room to turn around in here!’ Gina complained as she pushed her belongings under the bottom bunk and sat upon it. ‘The Ice Queen! What a rude name! Some man obviously thought it up!’

Uman looked at Rhian and Gina uncertainly, her duties having become confused as of late. Seeing this, putting her own belongings away, Rhian addressed the maid uncomfortably.

‘Uman . . . as you know, the House of Hurkin, as it was, is no more except in name ’

Uman stared, having gone very pale.

‘You’re not thinking of releasing me from your service . . . oh, please, m’lady . . . don’t do this to me!’ Her eyes were filled with tears of dread.

Gina was aghast. ‘Rhian! What are you doing! Are you insane? How will I ’

‘This is none of your concern, my dear sister! You will manage just fine without poor Uman catering to your every . . . whim.’

Turning her attention back to the maid, Rhian said, ‘Uman, you have served the House of Hurkin well and faithfully all your adult life. You are still young enough to make a life of your own. Therefore do I release you, else I would do you a grave injustice.’

‘But . . . what am I to do? Who am I to serve?’

Rhian smiled at this, but said nothing.

-

As captain Danver had said, shortly after making their way to the galley, they were joined by T’li’s aunt, Kira, and her two friends, Myrrn and Dielu. Like Kira, Myrrn had known the girl from birth.

T’li soon learned of the events in Arseula and of the betrayal of their former captain; of Shela’s fate and the departure of T’cha and Irena with the Norlanderman, Ander. And their signing on as crew of the Ice Queen; and of their running supplies between Brannigwaith, Otar, and the northern ice dock called Dawnton’s Landing.

Speaking in T’li’s stead, Rhian then told the three women what was transpiring in Otar; of the rout of the Talimari and of the new Alliance; of the war’s progress and the methods of the Enemy, including the subversion of many Talimari, Otari and Udin citizens.

There was no comfort to be had in the sharing of such news, and once past the joy of renewed acquaintance, the mood became glum.

‘The continental armies of the Enemy are vast,’ Rhian finished at last. ‘We have learned that they serve one who styles himself The Dark Magi. That he is a powerful necromancer, and will not stop until either he is defeated, or we ourselves are destroyed.’

Their conversation became desultory after that, during which the three Udini women learned of T’li’s marriage to the Otari heir to King Hurkin’s throne.

‘And when Erin found out that he was going to be a father, he sent T’li packing, with us ’

Gina!’ Rhian winced at her sister’s indiscretion and put her arm around T’li, who was absolutely mortified.

Kira recovered herself enough to smile at Gina’s faux pas. ‘I see. Well, not to bruise your

feelings, my dear niece, but I am relieved by this bit of news. I never thought you were cut out to

be a soldier. And don’t give me that look! Your father . . .’ she made an exasperated sound and

shook her head. ‘You worship the ground he walks on, I know! But you were so much an

afterthought in his life that his plans for your were ill conceived, at best!

‘For my part, I am greatly relieved that no harm came of your being sent away. Had you seen battle, you wouldn’t have lasted a day! Trust me in this! I have survived many battles. Enough to be able to discern which raw recruits will survive, and which will not.

‘As to your being sent away . . .

‘You carry a child within you now. Your child’s safety must be and remain your chief concern in life now.’ She and Rhian exchanged a look. ‘Unless I miss my guess, your husband no longer fights for Otar. He fights for you.’

-

The voyage north took far longer than it would normally, as the Ice Queen put out much farther to sea than ships previously, losing sight of land altogether  a feat made possible by the navigational skills of Dielu, and by the secret navigator’s art in her possession.

Far out of reach of the Enemy, over the weeks the Ice Queen fought her way north through the frigid gale that left the lines crusted with ice, the sails, hoary and slick with frost that peeled off

in white clumps and fell like snow onto the ice encrusted deck.

At last, they came in sight of the northern ice sheet, and the following day came in sight of Dawnton’s Landing.

They were no sooner tied up and the crew began shifting cargo and passengers, when the ship was boarded by two familiar faces.

The cries of wonder and greeting died on the lips of T’li, Kira, Mern and Dielu, as T’cha and Ander walked directly up to Dielu.

Swallowing, T’cha said miserably, ‘I must speak with you. Now. In private. It concerns a matter of grave importance . . .

‘And a sharing of precious knowledge.’

10

Gaia gaped in terror as the shadow that was not a shadow, the Watcher of the crossroads, detached itself from the dark behind the way station and moved out into the road, searching for the image the mer-woman had placed in its mind. She had not anticipated success. Nor had she known that the creature was so dread and fearsome. It was the shape of fear, an indistinct smudge, whether across her vision, her mind, or both, she couldn’t tell.

‘Shades, Gaia!’ May blurted in a choked whisper as the others gasped and stared whitely in fear, ‘You’ve awakened a Demon!’

‘Silence!’ Ali whispered harshly. ‘All of you!’

Sensing that the creature was preoccupied with searching in and around the stumps and boulders across the road, Ali began leading Gaia and his crew in a line, across the road, across a field of tall grass, and directly towards a copse lining a rill that meandered north to join the river. They reached the wood and stopped.

‘Are we followed?’

Gaia shook her head, her eyes wide and luminous in the dark.

Unnerved by the mer woman’s disfocussed stare, May blurted, ‘I do not like this! If we’re in the clear, then why does she appear as though we are hunted?’

The look the mer woman turned on May made the Udin girl swallow in fear.

‘Had that creature become aware of me, it could easily have broken my mind! I have not a tithe of the strength necessary to withstand such feral might. Do you wish to face it yourself? Or find you alone in the wilderness? Or come upon you out of the dark, as you lie asleep in your bed? Bethink you! That creature is but one of the many perils that lie in wait for us ’

‘That’s enough!’ Ali said firmly, taking off his cape and wrapping it about the mer woman’s shoulders.

‘Unhand me !’

‘You are not yourself,’ he told her with rough gentleness, fastening the cape. ‘Come  let’s put some distance between ourselves and this place. We will follow the river to the east.’

-

The land they traversed was a changeable mixture of fen and forest, bordered by the river to their left, and the road and a one hundred foot high cliff of rock to their right. Atop the cliff lay a barren stone plateau dotted with scrub and lichen. The rock appeared very old and worn, especially the cliff face, which looked as though it had been eroded by water over many millennia, leaving its scrub grown surface scored and intaglioed with rounded vertical gullies.

Ali led the way to a place where the river meandered away from the road, looping around a tall stand of deciduous forest that stood alone like an island. In the thick of this, well away from the road, they made camp and waited for the light of dawn.

Gaia sat apart from the others, head bowed in her hands, shivering. At last, she shifted to her knees and vomited, miserably, until she had nothing left to heave but bile. At last, exhausted and weeping dryly, she collapsed on her side.

May watched the mer woman helplessly, wrung with pity and cursing her terrible fate. At last, she choked to no one in particular, ‘Help her! Please . . . won’t someone help her? It isn’t fair that she should suffer like this!’

Though Ali’s gaze had been averted, focussed on nothing as he listened to the mer woman’s misery, he raised his head at this, as though having reached some decision. The others watched as

he knelt beside the mer woman, a dark silhouette of concern, and said some words they couldn’t

hear. Gaia nodded as she listened, at last becoming quiet. Then, as though he were making a

promise, Ali scooped the young women up in his arms, cradling her gently, and stood leaning with his back to a tree, an upright, compassionate, comforting shape in the darkness, bent over a guess of pain and need that reached up to touch his face, at last becoming limp as she fell into the guileless trust of untroubled slumber.

-

The brash echo of a battle horn brought them awake; all excepting Gaia, who remained insensate.

Moving through the trees for a clear view of the river, they saw in the first grey light and mists of

dawn that a line of black warships was making its way downriver. The ships were the kind of

swift feluccas preferred by the desert warlords, with odd looking lateen sails and long, backswept

oars pointing downwards into the water. Ali cursed when he saw them. ‘Ajab! Gurdeep! Do you

recognise those ships?’

The twins exchanged a look. ‘I do not understand,’ Ajab replied, ‘how they could have brought those ships from the inland seas.’

‘Unless they were built near here,’ Gurdeep put in. ‘But I do not recognise those men, or their standards. They have a foreign look about them.’

‘They are from the northeast of the southern continent,’ Bolo said, his tall frame stiff and erect, a blue black icon in the early morning light. ‘They are barbarians.’

‘Aye, and bent on conquest,’ his brother, Nalu, said quietly. ‘Do you see those shields? And those black rows of serrated iron scimitars? Those are the weapons of butchers without conscience.’ He sighed. ‘I pity the poor souls who are the object of their malice, for it is a malice like no other. It is a fixation, to the exclusion of all else. These soldiers of Evil will pursue their victims without let, to the ends of the earth.’

‘Small wonder this Dark Magi has seen fit to make use of them,’ Vasha muttered, shifting her spear to the crook of her free arm, and shading her eyes for a better view of the Enemy craft. ‘A weapon with a mind, and a sense of purpose!’

‘You sound as though you admire them,’ Bolo said, frowning.

She shook her head, her barbaric jewelry and tattooed cheek lending an enigmatic, wild and savage aspect to her demeanor. ‘Let us say that I properly respect the danger, and the uses to which such a weapon may be put.’ Her eyes strayed to Eric as she said this. The thin, ascetic looking man had shown no overt sign that the others could see, but Vasha knew him better. ‘What disturbs you, Eric?’

‘Those ships,’ he said, nodding. ‘Something is not right, though I can’t place it.’

The others turned to consider.

‘There! Those three doors along the sides!’ He cocked his head like a curious vulture. ‘Painted black like the rest of the topmost part of the ships, so as to conceal their existence. What do you think they might be for?’

‘Gaia?’ The mer woman had wakened and come to join them. Though still muzzy headed with sleep, she studied the ships with a frown. ‘What do you see?’ Ali asked her.

Her hair, which was untied, she held back from her face as the breeze caught at it. The ships became shadows concealed by the blinding glare of the morning sun which had just broken redly over the horizon, like a smouldering glim, new fallen from the forge that gave it life. Yet the

mer woman saw little of this, as she watched with the otherness of her inner vision.

She shuddered.

‘I desire to see the One who could so blacken those men’s souls, for I can conceive of no more apt intent than that which contrived to abduct my Queen and the periapt that articulates the Will and the Soul of my people.’

-

The Saviour was bored. The drug induced frenzy of the crowd packed within the Adulatium only

served to exacerbate his growing desire to be away from them.

‘Wretched fools! Look at them! I have only to live and breathe . . . each nuance and gesture my body makes, willing or no, conscious or unconscious, will be seen as having import . . . every noise issuing from my lips will be perceived as a transport of ideas uttered by the Divine

Himself! Why must I surround myself with these rabble!’

From the shadows of a nearby alcove, Father Black watched his protégé with mild concern. Harmone would cure the beautiful young man of his ennui . . . more of the potent drug would find its way into the Saviour’s food and drink, and if necessary, would be saturated into the material of his intimate clothing.

‘Patience, my lovely. Perseverance. You are their Saviour, their Life, their Destiny! You are everything to them. Do you feel no obligation to share yourself but a little?’

The painted young man turned from the balcony in petulant ire. ‘This keeping up of appearances makes my very skin crawl! The touch of those women still leaves me feeling soiled ’

‘It was necessary ’

‘Necessary! You well know how the sight of their procreative attributes makes my gorge rise! My tastes range to the small and slender . . . the young and delectable . . . the unspoiled male of the species ’

Father Black’s response was ominous. ‘A secret you would do well to better protect! Or do you wish to lose all this, to that very mob, who could so easily turn on you.

‘Yes, turn on you! Look at them. A simple word; a turn of phrase; a mere suggestion . . . is all that it would take. Take a good, long look at them; the unreasoning masses, who will act on a mere whim, should they decide that you are a threat best dealt with personally, by each and every one of them. What do you think they would do to you? Where would you go? Do you believe that you could escape them?’

The Saviour had gone quite pale at these words and shook as though palsied, and wet himself as he shrieked with terror. ‘Why must you say such things to me? Why? What have I ever done, besides your bidding? Have I not always served you well and faithfully?’

‘Come inside, my boy,’ Father Black said with the kindness of a minister or a murderer. ‘Do not fear. I will care for you. What could those small innocents know that a man of my standing does not. Let me show you my love for you ’

‘Yes, Father. Protect me. You’ll always protect me?’

Father Black drew the miserable wretch into the shadows once more. ‘Too long in the light, my dear Saviour. That’s your problem. You were not made for the full light of day.’

-

The copse lining the ditches afforded enough cover, Ali decided, and they resumed their

journey towards the City of Treasures. Gaia, however, was reluctant to travel too near the river.

But now they had reached a narrow section that brought the river a stone’s throw from the road; the copse was a mere hedge bordering the road to their right, and to their left lay the open river for hundreds of yards, with no cover.

The mer woman was prostrate on her feet and would or could no longer make meaningful

communication with them. Her last words, before she’d fallen silent, still hung in the air like a

threat:

‘There are dark things in the water . . . dark things . . . dead things . . . they have eyes . . . I feel as though I’m going blind . . . is it yet daytime?’

Ali considered the sky as he led the stumbling mer woman along. Is it yet daytime? He considered her words a moment, then scrutinized her features which seemed blind and closed.

Is it yet daytime?

‘Though the sun is high, it feels like night,’ he muttered, glancing mistrustfully at the river.

Vasha breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Then it is not just myself! I was beginning to mistrust my senses, though there is no cynosure that is apparent to me. Yet perhaps it is a disfocussed phenomenon ’

Gaia, who had been stumbling along like a sleepwalker, brought them to a sudden halt as she turned to stare at the water, transfixed, her mien galled with loathing.

‘What is it?’ Ali looked from the mer woman to the turbid waters of the river. ‘What do you see?’

Gaia’s hands clawed reflexively at her face, as though trying to rid herself of something unspeakably filthy.

‘Great Mother of Life, ward us! They are coming . . . Ali, help me . . . I cannot see! . . . I cannot see !’

As one, the little company drew its weapons, sensing impending threat.

And then, from out of the river, there came a nightmare.

At once, the air was shattered by a high, keening wail of one pitch, made up either of myriad voices issuing as one, or of one great voice overmodulating the very air beyond hearing. Before them, the river’s surface seemed to dance as though vibrating upon a taut drum skin. Great columns of shadow composed of spray and darkness arose before them. It was a terrifying darkness, not of twilight, but that cast in stark shadows by blinding sunlight. Indeed, it seemed that an invisible sun lay behind each column, outlining each nothingness with its own penumbra of dread shadow.

‘Eric, NO!’

The wiry man reflexively took aim with his crossbow and fired its iron dart at the nearest approaching column of darkness. In response, the column seemed to rear over him, and turning to

palpable darkness, fell upon him like an avalanche of unfettered might, crushing him to the ground like a massive sledgehammer. The others were thrown clear, and lay stunned from the deafening concussion that left their ears ringing.

Ali lurched to his feet. Scant feet away, Gaia knelt in the path of the juggernaut, lost in the

apocalyptic otherness of her inner vision. Without hesitation, he threw the mer woman unceremoniously over his shoulder and began running.

‘Fly! Put up your weapons! This is no fight that we can win!’

He almost fell headlong as another deafening concussion rocked the air. The place the mer woman had knelt became a spray of mud that fell about them like rain.

Throwing all caution aside, Ali decided to trust his lot to the Fates, and took to the road. By some miracle it was clear, and by the time they reached the next stand of forest, sobbing for breath, they plunged deep into its concealing embrace, threw themselves upon the ground, and wept for their fallen comrade.

11

It was not until T’li’s bleak mood began to affect her that Rhian began to realise the full import of their situation. Though they fought extravagantly, the combined forces of Otar, Udin, and what

remained of the Talimari military, were losing ground by the day. News was becoming scarce as

they Enemy’s numbers increased upon the high seas, and by degrees it was learned that they had

gained a foothold in Udin.

The great evacuation had begun.

Each day Rhian accompanied the distraught young woman to the docks of Port Brun as she waited for news of Erin, and each day she would wait until she had scrutinized each and every face of every new refugee, until at last, realising he was not among them, she would allow Rhian to lead her back to the home of their billets.

T’cha was unable to provide any sort of comfort for the girl; she had concerns and worries of her own. The betrayal of her friend’s secret weighed heavily on her conscience, and to expiate her feelings of culpability, had thrown herself into the work of perfecting the new weapon.

The Ice Queen was presently in drydock, awaiting conversion. Of the three Udin women, only Kira occasionally made the journey north to visit her niece. She was reticent in referring to Myrrn and Dielu, the latter because of the harm done her by being forced to share her secret knowledge, and the former because of her outrage at T’cha’s demands. But Kira seemed to understand the overriding need, and held her own council.

But at last, the inevitable finally happened. News had come of an horrific battle, ending in a final desperate evacuation, and the chilling pronouncement that Udin’s defences had collapsed, leading to a wholesale retreat south to Otar. And now, it was over.

Otar had fallen at last.

It had taken days to find T’li, once this news reached Rhian’s ears. After a lengthy search, they had gone south to the ice docks. There, they found the girl in the care of an elderly couple at Dawnton’s Landing, who had found her wandering about in shock. The last ship had come in, with the news that Erin was last seen fighting alongside his father, King Hurkin, and King T’Argot of Udin. To purchase the refugees’ escape, they had stood their ground, holding off the enemy for as long as possible. The last ship had seen their final stand as they faced the Enemy, their tiny force engulfed by a black sea of enemy soldiers.

For her part, Gina seemed unable to accept the truth, and dismissed news of Erin as being wholly unreliable, if not suspect. Days after Rhian had given her the news, Gina had responded with, ‘He’ll be here soon. You’ll see.’ Yet though she may have sounded carefree and reassuring to herself, Rhian often discovered her sister alone, reduced to comfortless tears.

-

It wasn’t until the three newcomers came to live under Ander’s roof that he came to realise for the first time the true gravity of what was happening in the world. Udin, Otar and Talimar were no more. It was only a matter of time before the Enemy’s ships came in sight of Dawnton’s Landing.

Still, the Island of Brannigwaith endured, fed by supplies from the north, and bolstered by soldiers from the fallen countries who fought savagely at their side. The shores of Brannigwaith were littered with the broken, burned out hulls and wreckage of successive waves of the Enemy’s fleets. And on more than one occasion, a late winter storm had wiped out entire armadas of their felucca ships.

What was most disturbing was that the Enemy had a new weapon of terror; a projectile device similar to that which T’cha worked feverishly to perfect. By all accounts it was a crude device by comparison: a short, massive tube of iron, six feet in length, that could hurl a four inch ball of lead with a surprising degree of accuracy. Some of these missiles burst into fire or exploded. They were, as yet, a limited device, and few in number. But it was a certainty that they would increase, in number, in accuracy, and in deadly force.

Ander wished he could find some comfort in the form of the Udin woman, Dielu, who aided his wife and sought for a reliable means to manipulate the device from a moving vessel. But Dielu worked as though goaded, and seemed perpetually angry.

She had, however, shown great curiosity over the wind wings, the tiny, three bladed skiffs having an upright sail shaped wing, that hurtled with ferocious speed across the frozen ice shelf, and made a point of asking Ander about them. When he had finished outlining the underlying principles of their design and construction, she cut him off.

‘Have you no larger versions?’

Ander cocked an eyebrow. T’cha, too, had left off her work to come listen.

‘Their design is optimum, for speed alone.’

‘What is their top speed.’

Ander didn’t hesitate. ‘Speeds approaching one hundred miles per hour have been recorded this far south. Further north, where the polar winds are greater, speeds of over two hundred miles per hour have been achieved, though at some peril. Why?’

‘A somewhat larger version will be our northerly weapon,’ Dielu said, almost to herself, lost in concentration. ‘With a fore  and aft mounted projectile weapon, with pilot and fore and aft weapons operators . . . yes, they will be enough.’

Approaching her indecisively, T’cha said, ‘But for such ships to be put into use, the Enemy must by then have gained the ice sheet. And what of Brannigwaith?’

‘Does not Araman of Brannigwaith often say that his island homeland is the mustering point?’ Dielu asked her.

T’cha and Ander waited tacitly for her to continue.

‘Well, let it be so! Let us supply Brannigwaith with an arsenal of projectile weapons far greater in size and of far greater range than can be utilized by any ship. And then, instead of constructing an armada, let us construct only a few ships, heavily armoured, with massive guns. These we will conceal in the ports of Brannigwaith. All we need do is stockpile Brannigwaith for an indefinite period. The Enemy would necessarily turn their attentions north  to us  and leave well enough alone, thinking that time alone will take care of what for them would be a minor irritant. We would then deliberately lose what would appear to be all of our ships defending the ice docks, and retreat north, drawing the enemy here!’

Ander considered the Udin woman as though questioning her sanity.

‘That would be suicide! You speak of deliberately giving the Enemy a foothold!’

‘It’s called “investing in defeat,”’ T’cha said, a note of admiration in her voice. ‘She’s quite right. Instead of giving the Enemy time to learn the ways of the north, it would be far better to lure them into a hostile, unfamiliar environment.’

In the meantime,’ Dielu continued, ‘we could use heavy ships to attack the mainland. And other large ships, like the Ice Queen, could likewise be sent to safety, and brought to bear once the Enemy has committed himself. We could sink every last one of their ships, and leave them stranded. That done, what your soldiers don’t accomplish, frostbite and starvation will.’

Ander sighed, considering.

‘Even should we succeed, the Enemy will be back in force, in far greater numbers, and with more powerful weapons. But I have heard a thing: the enemy ships, it is rumoured, issue from a river far to the south. If we could blockade them there ’

Dielu’s eyes went wide at this. ‘With Myrrn and Kira at my side, I will do this! Give me but three heavy ships, and I promise you, I will prevent any Enemy ship from making its way north.’

Ander and T’cha gaped at her.

T’cha was about to speak, but Ander cut her off. ‘Three? Are you mad? Against entire armadas of the enemy?’

‘Against ships having but six guns with a range of some two thousand yards,’ Dielu countered pointedly. ‘With a range of five miles and more, we will have the decided advantage.’

Ander exchanged a look with his wife. ‘I do not like this, Dielu! Your reasoning bears the ring of truth, yet I hear something other than your words. Revenge I can understand, as I can understand desperation. Yet behind your words I hear extremes borne of a desire to reassert your worth in the face or your proprietary loss of the secret navigator’s art. But in this you would gamble with the lives of others, including your dearest friends.’

‘We live in times of extremity,’ she told him directly. ‘Or need I remind you of that fact? Too, I would remind you that extremity such as mine has its uses. Motivation is needed for such a venture, but who is to say what form that motivation should take? Were you to send forth ships to attempt a blockade, the result would be the same. Yet ultimately you must depend upon the commitment of those in the front lines. It is not for you to determine what form that commitment will take, so long as it best serves your cause.’

Ander was silent for several long moments, considering. At last, in a quiet voice, he said, ‘Any such ships will be constructed in Brannigwaith, where the needed timber and metals are available ’

‘Then I must leave, immediately!’ Dielu cut him off, taking his reply as confirmation. ‘And you

must see to your defences, and plan on giving the Enemy no quarter.’

-

Irena stared in awe at the ice lion thrashing in the netting that held it. She and Thair had pulled the creature from a hole in the ice. Beneath the ice, real, water-ice in this case, lay an interconnected system of underground lakes. Though small, the creature was terribly strong, its white hide covered with a layered fur that was utterly impervious to the cold. Thair approached the strange looking creature with a long harpoon, which he thrust down its throat. The creature roared in agony, thrashing about and spewing gouts of blood, until it lay quivering in a pool of its own gore. Sickened, Irena watched until the beast’s eyes took on the glassy aspect of death.

Then began the process of rolling back the hide from the mouth, until the skinned carcass lay upon the ice. Even as they prodded the corpse into the hole in the ice, rending jaws began ripping at it as the water at the hole bubbled into a pink, milky foam.

Thair then rolled the hide into a bundle, placed the bundle in an oilskin sack, and began leading the way back to their skiff.

‘How’s your arm?’

‘Still sore,’ she admitted, flexing her shoulder, wincing.

‘Well, at least we won’t have to do this again for a while,’ he said as they got into the skiff and closed the cockpit. ‘And we have what we came for. It’s about the right size for a sailblade outfit.’

Irena sighed as Thair raised the sail and they got under way. Every member of their practice team would soon be outfitted for sailblading. In theory, an ice lion outfit would protect a sailblader every bit as well as the best snow outfit, with the advantage of leaving the wearer all but unencumbered. Still, to Irena’s eyes, it looked cold, being to all appearances little more than a

second skin. She shuddered.

‘Cold?’

She leaned back in his arms, shook her head and smiled to herself.

‘I’m looking forward to home, and a warm bed.’

He chuckled at this and gave her a squeeze.

‘So much time in bed together . . . so little sleep.’

Irena took off her mitts, opened a package of dried fruit, popped a few pieces in her mouth, and proffered a handful over her shoulder.

‘M’m. Where’d you get these?’

‘From a trader at the market. There won’t be any more for a while, I’m afraid. They come all the way from the south continent, apparently. The trader was bragging that he evaded the Enemy ships for ten weeks in order to bring these to market.’

Thair laughed, ruefully. ‘It seems that commerce is as potent a weapon in its way as warfare! I wonder how he managed such a feat?’

Irena shrugged. ‘He said he was desperate. He said that the Enemy doesn’t trade. If I understood him aright, the merchants have obtained help. From whom, he wouldn’t say, but being merchants, they’ve probably hired mercenaries. He did say that any enemy of the Enemy is his friend.’

‘It seems that need creates strange bedfellows,’ he remarked, innocently.

Instead of responding, she said, ‘Thair, what made you take a Udin wife?’

‘Don’t let Prie get under your skin,’ he grumbled. ‘She’s still angry with Nils, and she’s taking it out on you, when she should be taking it out on him. Don’t listen to her!’

‘Why should she be angry with Nils?’

‘For the same reason that Nils is being less than friendly toward me these days.’

‘Which is?’

For answer, he said, ‘Your stepfather and Prie’s parents have run out of patience with the two of them. Prie doesn’t know it, but she’s about to be married off to Cairin ’

‘What?! Your friend from the wood mill? The one who came with his brother to Grimming Veldt when we first met?’

‘Yes, that was Cairin.’

‘But why? Thair, that’s awful! Nils is going to be so hurt! And angry!’

‘Prie needs a keeper,’ he replied firmly. ‘And Cairin is no wayward adolescent. The problem is that she needs a husband. Now. It will be years before Nils is ready for that sort of responsibility.

‘Besides,’ he added, ‘you overestimate his reaction. In truth, Prie means very little to him. There has never been a true bond between the two, beyond that of two children, play acting. Besides, your stepfather has obtained a position for him ’

‘What? Where? Why am I always the last to know of such things?’

Thair shrugged. ‘I suppose because Ander thought it best to avert any conflict that might arise in his household. Don’t be surprised to find that Nils has already made his departure when we get back.’

She was silent for several long moments.

‘I see. Is that why you brought me out here today?’

‘Not specifically,’ he said with a smile in his voice, ‘but our coming out here was seen as just such an opportunity. Otherwise, Nils might have had the opportunity to stop by to have a few words with us that he would one day regret.’

Irena winced. ‘I didn’t realise it was that bad! But . . . where is Ander sending him?’

‘To stay with relatives at Port Welland, where he’ll be working at Midland Gardends.’

‘Gard ends? With a ‘d’? What’s that?’

‘It’s a hunting supplies manufacturer. Don’t worry . . . it’s a position he’s always wanted. They make crossbows, and sailblades ’

‘Sailblades? What have sailblades got to do with hunting?’

‘A great deal out past the eastern ports, where the ice is unsuitable for rail ships. It’s a different world where the polar ice cap meets the continent. It’s real ice, not mineral ice like we have here, and it’s all broken up and uneven. During summer, there are places where the ice melts completely, and there’s some farming. And there are greenhouses all year ’

‘Is that where we get our fresh salad vegetables? I had no idea! But . . . what’s underneath us here? I thought there was land underneath the ice.’

‘In a way, there is,’ he told her, ‘but it’s below sea level. Except for areas like the one we just came from, most of the North Country it is one a vast underwater hot spring, except that the water that percolates through freezes and evaporates very quickly.’

‘But why isn’t the ice sheet miles thick, if it’s always being added to?’

‘It doesn’t actually get added to. The minerals . . . kind of circulate, from what I understand, and the water evaporates. It’s a complicated process, and I’m not the right person to explain it.’

‘Thair?’

‘Yes?’

‘This isn’t the way home.’

‘I know.’

‘Are you going to tell me why we’re going this way?’

‘Your mother’s giving some sort of demonstration ’

‘Not those noisy projectile weapons again! They make my ears hurt! My head was ringing for days when they set off that big one!’

‘This is a little different, from what I understand. Besides, Ander made a point of telling me to bring you.’

-

As they drew parallel to the lighthouse, Thair reset the compass and turned several points more

southerly. An hour later they came in sight of the test range beacon, which reared up like a finger

pointing skywards. At the base of this was a small dock where they put in, and then made their way across the ice towards a lone building.

This was the first time Irena had set foot upon the open ice field, and she lifted her goggles briefly to inspect its surface. It appeared like smooth marble. She stopped to scuff her foot on its surface, then knelt down for a closer look. Taking a hunting knife from its thigh sheath, she began experimentally chipping away 

 and stopped in chagrin, fearing to damage her prized blade.

‘It’s as hard as rock  hey! Put me down!’

Thair swatted her rump as he carried her slung unceremoniously over his shoulder.

‘Mighty Thair catch himself pretty Udin girl. She too busy poking at ice to see Thair coming. Silly Udin girl!’

‘Ha ha! I’ll poke you if you don’t put me down!’

‘Udin girl not wise to poke holes in mighty Thair! Might get dropped on pointy head  ow!’

‘What was that about a pointy head?’

He shrugged her around so that she lay cradled in his arms.

‘Mighty Thair say bad thing so he have excuse to make it up to pretty Udin girl.’

Even behind her mask he could tell she was smirking.

‘Since when have you needed an excuse ?’

She shifted in Thair’s arms to see what had his rapt attention, even as he set her on her feet.

‘What on earth is that?’

-

Thair walked around the odd looking wind wing several times, inspecting the low slung fore and aft cockpits that were enclosed projectile turrets. The wing had been removed and lay on the ground nearby, secured by a chain to an ice anchor nailed into the ice bed to prevent its

blowing away. He went to the nose, interlocked his hands underneath, and lifted.

‘It’s very heavy,’ he remarked to T’cha and Ander, who with Irena looked on. He leaned over the central cockpit, and frowned. ‘What on earth! Timepieces! Three of them. And very complicated. Like the compass . . . but what’s this thing, hanging down in front of the seat? You’ve got them fore and aft as well.’

‘They’re called “range finders”,’ T’cha told him. ‘And those moveable dials on the front board are for plotting the speed, range and direction of targets.’

Returning to the nose, frowning, Thair pushed the barrel of the projectile weapon to one side, then leaned over the glass to inspect the interior. ‘Ah, I see. The weapon is mounted under the seat . . . or no, they’re a single unit! So that’s why the cockpit is perfectly round! You use your feet to turn both the seat and the weapon about. But . . . what’s that chain thing hanging down into that box on the floor?’

‘Come,’ T’cha told him, ‘I’ll show you.’

-

Irena put her hands to her ears reflexively as T’cha discharged the weapon across the open ice field towards a red target set some distance away. She was expecting a single loud BOOM, but was left gaping as the weapon’s reciprocating mechanism let out a cacophonous, heart stopping, THOM, THOM, THOM, THOM, that reduced the target to a scattering of debris which the wind soon dispersed to their left.

T’cha popped open the turret cockpit, climbed out and shut it behind her.

‘Well? What do you think?’

Thair swallowed, and considered his young wife standing some distance away, who looked very small and vulnerable standing beside Ander, both arms around him, his enclosed protectively around her.

‘I do not want my wife to have any part in this!’ he said in a low voice, so that only T’cha could hear. ‘She has known war, granted, but not like this. Not without someone beside her to protect her while remaining the primary aggressor. This ’ he considered the killing machine, bleakly. ‘This is something entirely new and different. Were this contrivance to take a hit, it is doubtful the occupants would survive.’

T’cha seemed to sag a bit at these words.

‘I am relieved! I can’t tell you how much! You know how dear Irena is to me. But what of you, Thair? A time will come when the Enemy must be faced, and dealt with.’

He gave the deadly vehicle a long, dark look.

‘This is no wind wing! Its purpose is not competitive sport or recreation. It is a killing machine, swift and deadly, like the falcon. And that is what it should rightly be called: a falcon of the ice shield; a bird of prey to strike terror into the heart of the Enemy.’

T’cha considered the creation of Dielu, Ander and herself, and sighed.

‘A Bird of Prey it is. Go, comfort your wife. She is distraught.’

T’cha and Ander exchanged a long look as Irena left his side and threw herself weeping into her husband’s arms. When the two young people had departed, and she and Ander were alone inside the hangar, having removed their headgear, T’cha ran her hand along the smooth flank of the

killing machine as she walked beside it.

‘You were right,’ he said quietly, ‘though I confess, I do not understand it. She has stared down grown men and done battle with them. But this . . . I did not expect to see her reduced to tears, trembling like a frightened child. I forget, sometimes, that she is very young, and in many ways, still very vulnerable.’

‘Though she has seen death,’ T’cha told him, ‘she has never yet taken a life. It is not in her

nature to kill. As such, it was never her intent to outright slay V’tan. In fact, had you not injured

him, he would surely have killed her.

‘The simple truth of hand to hand battle, all too often ignored or forgotten, is that the biggest and fastest always win. During peacetime, of course, competition favours raw speed, dexterity and sleight of hand, but in real combat, finesse counts for nothing, and is soon dispensed with in favour of brutal, brawling expediency. The strong man who can wield a broadsword with great power and speed will hew a path through any number of lesser men armed with mere cutlasses.’

‘You have slain such men.’

‘I have slain many such men. But I wield a light broadsword, and have learned to strike two blows to their one. Two blows is enough when the first has put the opponent’s weapon aside ’ her voiced trailed off as she wondered at his responding smile as he came up to her.

‘You are weaponless, wife.’

She smiled, wryly. ‘As are you.’

He chuckled at this, taking her in his arms.

‘Not quite.’

-

Uman scowled at the weather from the cafeteria window, not willing to face the cold on her walk

home just yet. She sighed, frustrated and disheartened. No one wanted the services of a maid, here in the north country, it seemed.

‘Who am I fooling! Rhian was very cruel to dismiss me from her service. What am I to do? Catch a husband? Hah! No man would want a dried up old maid like me. I’ll be thirty in two years!’

She watched, bleakly, as a great ice ship began backing out of its berth, towed by the heavy cable that was attached to a rail running beneath the surface of the ice sheet.

‘What a place! What a dismal, cold place! And me all alone, with no ’

‘Excuse me, Miss . . . is this seat taken?’

She gave the bearded fish monger with the gravelly voice a look. ‘It’s unlikely, considering we’re just about the only souls in here.’

He seated himself, his beard split by a wide grin, and set his wooden tray down. ‘Sorry I couldn’t offer you a job, lass. But as you can see, I’m a one man operation.’

‘That’s all right,’ she replied, smiling, glad for his company. ‘No one wants a dried up old maid like me, anyway.’

He gave her a look. ‘That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it? You don’t look old or dried up to me.’

She returned his look. ‘I’m twenty eight, and not much of a looker, now am I!’

‘Just for that,’ he said sternly, ‘you’ll be dining with me tomorrow evening.’

Uman blinked in surprise. ‘Whatever for?’

‘Oh h, I own a fairly nice house,’ he rejoined quietly. Uman was struck by his eyes, which were the kindest she’d ever seen.

‘You mean you need a maid? Why didn’t you just say so? Still, it wouldn’t be seemly to be seen dining with the hired help.’

He raised his eyebrow at this, but said, ‘You’re one of those being billeted, right?’

‘Yes, but ’

‘What is the address?’

She told him, wondering.

‘Fine. I’ll have someone sent around to collect your things.’

‘What? Oh, you mean it’s a live in sort of occupation!’

The bearded fishmonger smiled broadly.

‘Something like that.’

Nothing more was ever heard about Uman, except that she and her fishmonger lived happily ever after, and were two of the few people of that time who remained untouched by war.

12

Eric had been dead for five long days.

It seemed like centuries.

The toll on the company paled beside the plight of the mer woman, Gaia, who blamed herself for Eric’s death because it was her presence that had alerted the nightmare creatures of darkness that had arisen from the turbid depths of the unclean and perilous river.

Though still possessed of a bewitching, eldritch beauty, a fatal pallor lay beneath the surface of her otherworldly mien now. They had reached the outskirts of the City of Treasures. Within lay the Enemy, the Dark Magi. As keenly and intimately aware of his presence within, as though he were physically within her, Gaia knew the violating touch of his psyche as though he were rape incarnate. And it had become clear that, should she enter the City of Treasures, she would lose her mind and her soul altogether. He would feel her presence. In so doing he would know her. And knowing her, he would possess her.

The City of Treasures . . .

Its high, golden walls yet glittered in the afternoon sun, as did the myriad facets of red, green, yellow and blue glass like stone that adorned every coign, every rose window, every crenellated turret and battlement, every buttress and pillar.

The city was massive beyond belief, its walls spanning the river, the city proper within a great island of incomparable wealth and decadent beauty. The river issued from the mouth of a tunnel like gate, whose sole apparatus was a massive port cullis that served to bar entrance or

egress without impeding the river’s flow.

That much remained unchanged. Yet like a taxidermist’s parody of a living thing, the once vibrant city was reduced to the shell of a corpse, within which lay a breeding den of malignance, a parasitic larva that had utterly consumed its host from the inside.

The citizens inside were enslaved to harmone, an addictive compound which rendered them rapturous and witless. Their apparent ardour was a delusion and a snare from which there was no

escape, and the effect on its victims attracted the guileless from far and wide, who were all too

willing to believe the plausible lies told of an omniscient Saviour who would lead them to Perfection and Paradise.

Believing themselves to be living in Paradise, they were in fact the Living Damned, slaves to an unattainable idea, utterly unable to see past the effects of harmone to the bitter, empty truth of

their lives.

Ali and his little company stared at the City of Treasures and thought their hearts would break. They had come so far, and without Gaia to guide them, they would be unable to locate the

Vhurd aq, or Queen Animanya of the Doloman Islands, assuming she yet lived.

Ali was faced with a terrible choice, and with unthinkable consequences should they fail. Without revealing his decision or his mind, he finally spoke.

‘We approach the riverside warehouses before the city by nightfall. We will create a diversion and enter the city ’

‘What of Gaia?’ May blurted in dismay.

The mer woman sat some distance away, her unseeing gaze fixed on nothing, her bowed posture despondent.

‘Leave that to me,’ Ali told her.

‘But ’

‘There is to be no discussion!’ he cut her off, sharply. ‘From here on in, I will be issuing orders, and I expect all of you to obey them, instantly, and without hesitation. Is that understood?’ He fixed them with his gaze, one by one, fully expecting the hurt, the chagrin of betrayal on their

faces.

‘That warehouse, yonder, the one with that long dock and those ships and barges tied in front: we will break into that by night. If my guess is correct, within there will be the means of the needed diversion.

‘I need not tell you that this is by far the most perilous undertaking we’ve yet encountered. Regardless, we cannot afford failure. Failure . . . failure means doom for us all.’

-

The way was well guarded, and it was some hours before they were able to reach their goal. Telling the others to remain in a copse behind and underneath the rear of the building, which was built upon piles, Ali scouted his way to the front of the building, and hid himself beneath a front window behind a pile of hawsers.

It was a near thing; burly, foreign looking men were at work on the dock, removing barrels and supplies from the warehouse to a heavily laden barge and three of the ships. What he saw made him catch his breath, with sudden fear and hope. He was about to steal his way back to the others, when the appearance of two men sent him ducking for cover.

‘ . . . an end to them! The fleet will be ready two days hence, but you must leave tonight.’

‘Is it certain, then? Have we taken Udin? I’m not keen on trying to put ashore like Braggor, only to be slaughtered like swine on the beachhead!’

‘Otar is all that remains, and by all accounts they are evacuating. Your job is to reinforce the ground effort with those noisemakers. Have you seen what they can do? You’ll be able to step on the Otari like maggots with those things!’

‘I don’t trust that damned black powder! Deadly stuff! It’s bad enough we have to keep stockpiles of it here, without having to leave . . .’

The voices moved away out of earshot. Seeing his chance, Ali crept away through the shadows.

-

When he finished explaining his plan, Vasha shook her head.

‘I do not ’

‘No discussion,’ Ali said quietly, firmly. ‘None. May will guide you, once you’re under way. Once I’ve given you your diversion, you’re to do what I’ve told you to do, and you’re to leave.

‘My friends,’ he said, trying to control his rising emotion, ‘if we meet again in this life, look for me in the Doloman islands. If we meet again in the next, look for me in the green pastures of my homeland, where my family awaits, for sooner or later I will rejoin them. They have ever had my heart in their keeping.’

Without another word or backward glance, he vanished into the shadows.

-

The work crew had finally finished. All that remained was for the shipping crews to board their vessels and depart. Led by Vasha, the remainder of the company waited beneath the end of the

dock, waiting for a sign.

It came, as a cry of alarm.

FIRE! The warehouse burns! Clear out of here while you can! FIRE!’

Drawing her sword, her clenched snarl like the blade of a scimitar, Vasha leapt onto the dock, followed by the others, yelling like a tantara. They fell upon the hapless crew, cut them down as they fled in panic, cut loose the ship tied to the barge, and the barge itself, and began pushing them into the current while setting the other ships ablaze with burning lengths of rope, lighted by the growing conflagration.

They no sooner jumped aboard the felucca and began frantically working the oars, when a deafening concussion rocked one end of the warehouse, showering the vessel and barge with sparks and burning debris.

Seeing this, Vasha cried out in alarm. ‘See to the fires! If those barrels of black powder catch, we’re done for!’

By now the alarm had been raised. The City of Treasures stirred to life like a hornet’s nest. Caught unawares, the operators of the port cullis belatedly returned to their posts and began the slow, labourious task of raising the great gate. The mechanism was not built with speed in mind, however, and by the time the fleet had mobilized and left the city, the felucca had raised her sails

and made a running head start.

But she was encumbered by the heavy barge, and they would eventually catch her.

Vasha, meanwhile, planned to be ready for them.

-

Gaia gasped reflexively and covered her ears as the stockpile contained in the warehouse erupted, levelling all but the last buildings that lay before the City of Treasures. She and Ali sat in a tiny punt beneath the last dock, he fixing her with a stare thick with the promise of violence.

‘Now, Gaia! You must do it! Right now!’

Shaken and weeping, she gaped at him in disbelief. ‘No! I cannot! I would rather you slay me out of hand, right here and now!’

‘That’s enough! We do not have time for this! Too much depends on you ’

‘But how will I ’

Enough!’ he roared. ‘Don’t think! Act!’

Her tear stained visage was a mask of hurt and betrayal. Shaken by sobs, she closed her eyes, turned her mind inward upon itself . . .

Even as the gate began to raise, she opened her eyes once more.

But her gaze was as bleak and empty as a wilderland.

Choking down guilt and pity, Ali brought the punt about, watched for an opening, and hugging close to the city wall, began rowing toward the open gate.

-

‘Here they come! They’re gaining on us!’

Vasha took a deep breath and began issuing orders.

‘Use the big one to find your range. And to get a little practice. Have you any experience with those thundermakers, Bolo?’

The big black man grinned. ‘Ask me in an hour’s time, Vasha.’

She chuckled in return. ‘Ali did say this is do or die. Well, we had better do! Nalu! You’re with Bolo in the middle. Ajab! You’re with Gurdeep on the left. May! You’re with Bain on the right. Just remember: the ships behind us cannot fire upon us unless they manage to pull alongside. One lucky shot and it will be us waiting on the other side for Ali!’

‘At least we won’t need wings,’ Bain quipped.

You will,’ Ajab shot back. ‘With your girth, it won’t take long for you to fall back to earth.’

‘How far is the lead ship, Bolo?’

‘Close enough. Shall I make them regret their perseverance?’

Standing atop the high stern of the felucca, clutching the side steering oar, looking for all the world like a savage Valkerie, her robes fluttering in the breeze like defiance itself, Vasha considered her six friends where they stood, smoldering punks at the ready.

Swallowing in a constricted throat, realising this might very well be their last campaign together, she said quietly, ‘The order is given. Let’s teach the Enemy and his would be Saviour a little humility.’

-

The inhabitants of the City of Treasures, even had they taken notice, were too wrapped up in their own doings to waste any time with the two insignificant figures entering the city in a tiny punt. Regardless, they looked to be civilians. It was plainly obvious that the woman was no soldier, and that she was the man’s only apparent concern. And the way they argued! Obviously man and wife, engaged in all too typical marital strife. Hadn’t they remembered to take their harmone?

The fools!

-

‘I don’t like this! They’re keeping their distance now,’ Bolo complained. It had been a close thing, but they had somehow managed to sink a dozen ships before the Enemy decided to keep their distance.

They had passed the point they’d begun their journey upriver hours ago. Vasha guessed that they would reach the sea by dawn. The current was strong and swift, the wind from behind.

‘They mean to take us on the high seas, where they can outmanoeuvre us,’ she said, grimly. ‘The advantage remains ours, however. We have the bigger thundermakers, though I wonder at the

purpose for which they were made. They are too large for a ship such as this.’

May groaned and wiped at her face.

‘It’s starting to rain! May I have a look for an oilskin?’

Nalu raised his head to smell the air, his nostrils flaring. And smiled.

‘A storm comes. A big one!’

Vasha’s eyes became wild with hope. ‘Are you certain?’

‘I am certain.’

She sprang into action. ‘May! Take the tiller. The rest of you: let’s get this load secured! We have ridden out storms before this! If the barge gives us trouble, I’ll cut the ship loose and drag it all the way to our destination by myself!’

‘Vasha, Vasha, you are a wonderment!’ Bolo chuckled as he set to work. ‘Three cheers for Captain Amazon!’

‘I want a rain cape,’ May grumbled to herself. She let out a squeak of alarm as something landed squarely in her face.

‘Ask, and you shall receive,’ Gurdeep chuckled.

-

Two weeks later, Otar was being evacuated, the last defenders remaining to buy the refugees time, and to make as brave a last stand as they might. Twice, they repelled the Enemy, and by then the last ship evacuating refugees had gone. The Enemy, bloody and exhausted, waited only to garner their strength for the final, killing blow that would mean the end.

And then, a cry went up from the Dark Magi’s Imperial Army as its soldiers espied the approaching thundermaker laden barge, which was being towed by a lone, bedraggled felucca ship. What luck! Now, their work would be done for them!

Erin and Marl leaned on their swords and listened to the gloating of the Enemy.

The bodies of King Hurkin and King T’Argot lay side by side, along with that of King Dreis’quot of Talimar. Resolution and Unity had come at last . . . but at a dreadful cost. Dreis’quot had somehow managed to rally the southern Talimari forces that remained to him, had somehow led a bloody sortie that had fought its way through the Enemy ranks. But at the last, he was cut down, even as his people escaped to freedom . . .

‘I am glad my wife is not here to witness this,’ Erin said quietly. He sighed and shook his head. ‘I promised her that I would return to see our child born. What a foolish thing to do to her! We should never make promises to one another that Life won’t let us keep.’

Marl raised an eyebrow at this. ‘We’re standing at the end of all things, and you’re concerned about your wife. I envy you that.’ He turned his attention to the approaching barge and felucca. The entire side of the barge bristled with thundermakers, primed and ready. The felucca hadn’t even bothered to open the doors on her landward side. There was no need for the smaller thundermakers, apparently. ‘Ye, gods! Look at the size of those things! I wish we had some wine left. I’d drink a final toast to Honour and Glory.’

Erin couldn’t help but smirk at this. ‘Honour and Glory? I never thought I’d hear those words from you.’

The felucca and barge riding in its wake were almost in range now. Soldiers stood by seven of the great thundermakers, smoldering punks at the ready.

Marl gave Erin a scandalized look. ‘The two finest barmaids in the Balmy Arms Tavern, and you never heard of them ’

They winced, as with a thunderous roar, seven colossal thundermakers shattered the preternatural quiet.

‘Good bye, my fr ’

‘What the devil?!’

They exclaimed, together.

It wasn’t until the second volley shattered the peace that they understood.

‘Look!’ Marl cried. ‘It may be made of old tattered rags stitched together, but I know Udin’s flag when I see it! She’s on our side!’

The third volley sent the Enemy scrambling for cover in a hail of destruction. The felucca untied from the barge, and propelled by oars manned by Ali’s crew, moved towards shore to pick up those that remained. The three kings were meanwhile hastily set upon a pyre of honour, and as the dangerously overloaded felucca unloaded much of its human cargo on the barge and began towing it seaward, the survivors watched in silence as the souls of Udin, Otar and Talimar were consigned to eternity and oblivion, even as the Enemy shook their spears and gnashed their teeth in thwarted malice.

13

Gina paused at the bedroom doorway to see if T’li had moved. Something dull and fearful gripped her heart at the empty expression on the young woman’s face. The Udin girl remained as before, sitting on the edge of her bed, rocking herself forward and back almost imperceptibly, her stare unfocused. Swallowing, Gina made her way downstairs where she found Rhian sitting in the kitchen with Niia. Una was out somewhere with friends.

‘Any change?’

Gina mutely shook her head and joined them. She, too, was now marked by the loss of her brother. She neither slept nor ate well, and like T’li appeared wan and pale, an aspect that was only exacerbated by the untidiness of her crimped looking teddy bear blonde hair. Gina sat close beside her older sister, who put her arms around the girl, kissed her forehead, and rocked her, gently. Gina lost her composure then, and began weeping, quietly.

Rhian heaved a sigh. ‘I am sorry, Niia! You must think us poor companions.’

Niia shrugged. ‘We are at war. You’ve lost your homeland, and more.’ After several moments of silence, her curiosity getting the better of her, she asked, ‘Is it true that you and Gina are real princesses? Did you really live in a castle? I’ve never seen a castle, except in books. Did you wear a tiara? Or a crown? Or those tall, pointy hats with tassels, and big, brightly coloured gowns with puff sleeves?’

Rhian couldn’t help but chuckle at this. Even Gina’s tear stained visage was brightened by a wan smile.

‘There are many different types of monarchies,’ Rhian told her. ‘In Otar, only the first in line held title. Our father was king, but our mother was merely Madam Hurkin. So . . . no, we didn’t wear tiaras, or crowns, or tall, pointed hats.’ She smiled, remembering. ‘But we did have some very nice gowns!’

Lots of nice gowns,’ Gina put in with a smile, her eyes closed as she lay her head against her sister’s breast. ‘And a great big bath, with hot, running water.’

‘Did you have horses?’ Niia asked, her expression wistful.

‘Oh, yes,’ Rhian told her. ‘A whole big stable of them. T’li used to ride one of them occasionally. I’ll never forget the look on her face the first time she sat on the old nag! The horse was ignoring her, going on about its business, and T’li gave me this exasperated look as she held on to the reins, and said, “How do I steer him?” It was a her, and it took some explaining that you do not “steer” a horse. And when the old nag finally decided she’d had enough, that it was time for a rest, she just lay down and dumped T’li on the ground, right on her derriere!’ She sighed, sadly. ‘It was one of the few times I ever heard her laugh.

‘By the way, where’s Una?’

‘She and her friends are out sailblading,’ Niia told her. ‘They saw Irena and Thair and their friends practising at it a few weeks ago, and said it looked like fun, so they’ve been learning, too.’

‘Isn’t she a bit young to be running about in those skiffs?’ Rhian asked her, concerned.

‘Oh, no! A sailblade isn’t a skiff! It’s just a blade with a sail attached.’

Rhian gave her a look, unable to picture this. ‘Just a blade? You mean, they sit on this blade, and the wind carries them about?’

Niia giggled at this. ‘No, silly! It’s a long sort of board, with a blade underneath, and you stand on it and hang onto this sort of bent bar that connects to the mast and the back point of the sail. The bar sticks out on either side, so you can switch sides and change tack. The bar’s bent so it stays clear of the sail, once the wind catches it.’

‘Is it safe? How do they manage to stay upright?’

Niia shrugged. ‘If it goes over, you don’t have far to fall  just onto your back or your tummy. When you’re dressed in a snowsuit, you’ve got all this padding, anyway. But it is really hard to do. Irena had to practice for days before she managed to made her first turn. She’s really good already, and she and Thair have these ice lion suits! You should see them!’

‘Irena did show me hers,’ Rhian told her. ‘It looks like a second skin, with the fur turned inside and that white skin on the outside.’ She shuddered. ‘She was wearing it out there in the cold wind, with only her goggles and a light pair of shoes, looking practically naked! She assures me it’s very warm, but she certainly didn’t look it!’

A presence got their attention. They turned about to find T’li standing at the bottom of the stairs. Rhian intercepted her and led her to the table.

‘Now that we’ve got you here, you’re going to eat something. All right?’

The Udin girl nodded almost imperceptibly, not looking at them, arms folded tightly against herself.

Gina, who sat behind her, for the first time put her arms around the girl.

‘We’ll get through this yet,’ she murmured quietly. ‘I haven’t given up, either. Not until I see proof.’

Rhian’s responding look was one of exasperated pity and empathy, but she held herself to silence as she put together a light meal for the four of them, aided by Niia, who better knew what all sauces and spreads were.

‘I dreamt I saw him,’ T’li said almost in a whisper. It was the first sound she’d uttered in days. ‘He was in a strange place . . . standing on the shore, looking to the north and waiting for a ship to bear him away . . . I thought it very odd, for he was not in Otar. It seemed to be an island . . . and in his mind he saw me waiting for him in a far place . . . a far place like a dream . . .’

Her accounting struck the others with a foreboding chill, for they were familiar with the ancient Sagas of Keln, of the Isle of the Dead where departed souls waited for Harbad the Oarsman to come and bear them to the Land of Dreams in his vessel, the Cairnwight.

Even Rhian was too superstitious to dismiss the notion, or the validity of the young Udin woman’s dream vision. When the meal was ready, she had the four of them sit around the table, hands joined, heads lowered and eyes closed in benediction.

‘It is said that the Dreamtide’s tributaries are to be found in both the Lands of the Living and the Lands of the Dead. Hear us, Harbad, son of summer’s Evenstar . . . Erin’s place is here, with his wife and his unborn child, and with his sisters who love him dearly. If this be a sign that his Fate is not yet written, we ask that you bring him back to us . . .’ in a barely audible voice, she breathed, ‘I beg you.’

-

Irena sat on the ice, arms crossed, and glared at the iceblade as it slithered to a stop against the catchwall that lined the practice field. Thair was soon at her side, and expertly slewed his craft

to a stop.

‘That was quite a move,’ he chuckled, laying his craft and its sail flat to prevent its blowing away. ‘I’ve never seen an iceblade stand on its nose before.’ Slipping his hands underneath his wife’s arms, he lifted her to her feet, turned her about, pulled down the bottom of her facemask and his own, and kissed her.

‘What was that for?’

‘That was the consolation prize  Hey! What was that for?’

She smirked at him sitting unceremoniously on the ice and pulled her facemask back up.

‘That was for finding it funny when Fey deliberately cut me off!’

He grinned as she watched her retrieve the wayward iceblade, admiring the perky shapeliness of her in the skin tight iceblade suit.

‘What do you think you’re staring at?’

He pulled up his concealing facemask with a chuckle.

‘Shall we try again?’

-

The three pairs formed a line once more, Irena and Thair in the rear, then Fey and Levin, with Bridella and Jaxon in the lead. As before, Jaxon and Bridella set an easy pace, coasting across the rink, coming about and recrossing, coming about and recrossing . . . with each tack they moved crossways by increments until they reached the far side. And then, they reversed, giving each other room as each pair completing a turn crossed paths with another pair heading into the turn.

Their arms and shoulders were already aching from hours of swordplay at Rys Hall, hence the easy pace designed to build stamina without causing injury.

The six practised as a unit now, a triaphila of their own that, they hoped, would excel at the upcoming competitions. Synchronized iceblading was one of the requirements for each triaphila, as well as a variety of gymnastics.

If the regimen was gruelling, not one of them complained. All three pairs were young, married couples who had become far more than just a team. They did everything together, had all taken a single house together; they travelled and hunted and played together. They were athletic and bright and cheerful . . .

The only disturbing thought in their minds and in their well ordered lives was that war was looming.

-

Dielu inspected the skeleton of what would one day be a heavily armoured warship with awe. The dimensions alone, for a seagoing vessel were staggering: Two hundred feet in length, with four masts, three decks of the new weapons, several of which faced directly fore and aft, and an inward sloping hull reinforced with iron plating above the waterline, designed to not give the

Enemy’s projectiles a flat surface, thereby greatly lessening any impact.

‘All things considered,’ she mused, ‘this is apt compensation for the loss of my livelihood.’

‘You may not think so once this war is over,’ Myrrn told her, having just returned with Kira from inspecting the other two ships.

The shipyard lay in the arms of a forest of great trees which reared over them like titans. The black oak of Brannigwaith was both legendary and plentiful.

‘I won’t be thinking anything if we lose,’ Dielu rejoined, tartly.

‘The weapons will be in place some time tomorrow,’ Kira told them. ‘I’m almost tempted to remain here and pick off their ships for sport.’

‘Is there any word on your niece?’ Myrrn asked Kira with genuine concern. ‘I heard that some people found her at Dawnton’s landing, half out of her mind.’

Kira sighed, though with some anger. ‘My sister refuses to make the journey north to care for her. And her father! She worships the ground he walks on, yet he in his turn has never shown any great anxiety over her welfare. He and those three sons of his are ill mannered boors, louts and womanizers. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day T’li finds herself an auntie a dozen times over to a rabble of fatherless waifs!’

‘Why don’t you tell us what you really think,’ Dielu remarked, dryly.

‘Please don’t!’ Myrrn protested, knowing that Kira’s tongue was capable of far more scathing vitriol. ‘I’m on my way for a bite to eat. Coming?’

-

One of the engineers setting up the most easterly of the massive projectile devices touched his fellow on the shoulder to get his attention.

‘Look.’

Far off in the distance, a lone felucca approached.

‘Just one? That’s a disappointment. Still, practice is practice. How much longer, Sander?’

The black bearded, beefy bald man finished pounding on the shaping iron covering a glowing ground anchor rivet, in turn held in place by his young helper, and paused to wipe the sweat from his brow and torso with a towel he kept stuck in his belt. He considered the ship and shrugged. ‘At this rate . . . might get it done in time to get off a shot or two. That is, assuming our friends there don’t change course.’

Disappointed, the engineer said, ‘Well . . . can’t you hurry it up?’

‘Iron heats only so fast,’ the riveter told him with a shrug. ‘If we don’t get this thing properly anchored, it’ll rip itself clean off its own mounts, and we’ll have to start all over again.’

‘Why are they waving at us?’

What? Here, give me that thing!’ The engineer took the small brass spyglass from his friend and had a look.

‘Well?’

‘Get a runner!’ the engineer bit off, tersely. ‘Tell them to dispatch a medical ship.’

The one named Sander joined him, wondering.

‘I heard no one was left back there. I want to meet whoever stole that thing and managed to get out alive.’

14

Before allowing either himself or Gaia to fall asleep, Ali made sure to wrap a blanket he’d

stolen earlier tightly around the both of them to prevent the mer woman’s escape. Bright daylight

showed through the open door of the hayloft which overlooked the narrow street outside. At the

back of the stable below, Ali could hear a single farrier at work, whistling quietly and thinly to

himself as he shod a great, shaggy dray horse. Outside could be heard the movements and

conversation of people on a busy city street. The manger smelt strongly of clean, new hay, horses, manure and sunshine.

Had not the two been exhausted, sleep would have remained elusive.

They were wakened a few hours later by the clatter of mounted soldiers outside. Ali tensed, clutching his sword, but the danger soon passed. There was little traffic in the street now, and the stable had been closed up, leaving them alone with the horses beneath that whickered from time to time.

Tightly entangled against him, Gaia shifted irritably, lay her head back down on his shoulder, and was still once more.

‘I would ask a thing of you,’ she muttered quietly.

When he didn’t answer, she continued.

‘If we find my queen alive and contrive her rescue, then I want your promise that you will end it for me.’

‘I already gave you my answer to that,’ he grated, not wishing to continue this conversation. ‘Stop asking. The answer remains “No.”’

‘Then you are a wicked, evil man! Having silenced my power, I am of no use to you. Why did you not send me away with the others when you had the chance, and select a more fit companion for this venture?’

‘Because you would have returned to your home, where you are as good as dead.’

‘Thanks to you, I am already as good as dead! In silencing my power, I am reft of half my being! You have no idea ’

Enough! Someone will hear you ’

‘I do not care! Let them come and do what they will! I mf!’

She trembled, feeling the strength of the hand clamped over her mouth.

‘Would you like me to end it for you right now? I could snap this patrician neck of yours like a chicken  crack!  like this  and it would all be over for you! Is that really what you want?’

He didn’t let her see his guilt or his overwhelming relief when he fixed his outwardly hard eyes on her own which were wide and terrified, and she shook her head, No. When he removed his hand, she was panting with fear and trembling.

Her eyes filling with tears, she blurted, ‘I had no idea what sort of man you really are underneath, Ali Abdhar! You are a black hearted monster, with no compassion, no remorse, and with no feelings!’

‘That’s me- Ali, the evil sea pirate. Your mother should have warned you about men like me.’

‘My mo  . . . do not mock me, you . . . you filthy violator of women’s bodies! My people are free from the degrading debauchery and indignities of procreation.’

Ali frowned at this. ‘That is not possible. You expect me to believe that your people find their children growing under toadstools?’

‘They are grown in the Felata!’

‘The what?’

‘The Fe  . . . do you honestly not know about this?’

‘You’re telling me you have no men? Not a one?’

She reddened at this, and admitted, ‘Occasionally a mer woman will . . . sate a carnal need if the desire becomes too . . . overpowering.’

‘That’s not what I asked you. How are your people able to produce children?’

‘Our people do not. The Felata does this for us.’

‘And this . . . Felata . . . produces only girl children.’ It was a statement.

‘I should think that much is obvious!’

Somehow knowing the answer to this, with a sick feeling, he said, ‘Tell me about your childhood. Who raised you? Were they good to you? Did you love them?’

Her stare of incomprehension erased all doubt in his mind, if not most of his sense of guilt. He was no longer surprised that her actions wholly contradicted her words, or that her responses were not the least bit in accordance with her beliefs, as he tenderly caressed her cheek, brushed away her tears and kissed her forehead.

‘Sleep now. Regardless what you may think of me, should we survive this and retrieve the Vhurd aq, I will make it up to you.’

‘Make . . . ? I do not understand what you mean.’

‘I know. But there will come a day.’

-

Erin sighed with relief when he saw their signal returned from shore.

‘I suppose you’ll be going straightaway to that Udin wife of yours.’ Marl remarked.

May, who overheard this, stared at the heir of Otar with frank surprise and outrage.

‘You married a woman of Udin? You? The heir of Otar? Which of King T’Argot’s daughters have you debauched?’

Erin raised an eyebrow at this and considered an angry rejoinder, but said, ‘Her father is the Thane of Woren County . . .’ the look of revulsion on the young weaponsmaster’s face stopped him.

‘That pig! It’s a good thing that his daughters were sheltered by their grandparents! Their

brothers are just as bad as the father! Which one did you select? Miri? Yela? Amra? No? Not T’li! She’s but a child!’ May stopped herself to think back and do a little chronological mental

arithmetic, then glared at him. ‘You did say that she is your wife! Not your unwilling concubine,

but your wife! Forgive me, but I cannot believe this! Only men from Woren County take wives from Woren County! Why did you marry her? What did her father pay you? Or is he blackmailing you?’ She said this last like an accusation.

‘Listen, you,’ Marl cut in, ‘this man married that girl to keep her safe! Safe from your Udin captains! Safe from those of my Talimari countrymen who would slay any woman caught dressed

like a man or engaged in a man’s occupation. And safe from his own family, and from those lunatic religious fanatics whose murderous followers were about to carve our hides before you showed up.’

May blinked in incomprehension. ‘Religious fanatics?’

‘The church!’ Marl enunciated. ‘The very people who set their armies upon us!’

‘We are newly come from the gate of the City of Treasures,’ May told him, looking to Erin as well. ‘The men we saw were soldiers, not religious fanatics. We saw no sign of religious activity

at all.’

She sighed. ‘But perhaps the situation within the city tells a different tale. As we left, our captain was attempting to enter the city.’

She told them of the Vhurd aq, of the fate of Queen Animanya, of the mer women of the Doloman islands, and of the Dark Magi, of which almost nothing was known.

Erin responded by telling her of all that had transpired, to the best of his knowledge.

When he was done, May sighed.

‘You do not know it, but the Fate of the known world hangs in the balance. Should the Dark Magi master the periapt known as the Vhurd aq, we will all be destroyed.’

-

Erin considered his own haggard reflection in the porthole as the schooner approached Dawnton’s landing. He hadn’t slept in days, and had eaten little. Though it was late dusk, the reflective ice sheet gave a false sense of light that illuminated its own bitter cold and the great wooden landing incongruously affixed to its edge, upon which were built warehouses and other buildings.

Events of the past weeks seemed unreal. His homeland had fallen, his people were scattered, there were so many things that needed doing . . .

Yet he had pushed all thought of responsibility to the back of his mind for the time being. His sole focus, for better or for worse, was his young wife and all that remained to him of his family, his two sisters.

It was with considerable difficulty that he’d learned of their whereabouts. The people of Brannigwaith were too preoccupied with war to have much time to spare for the heir of a fallen

country, who to them was just another dispossessed refugee.

Odd, he reflected, considering the strong, hidden ties there had been between Otar, Brannigwaith and the Norlander nations. Otar’s primary resources had been in metals and raw ore, coal and wood, which through Brannigwaith had for generations been traded with the Norlandermen for fish, finished manufactured goods, and meat and other products that came from the northern Veldts.

The arrangement had traditionally kept the Norlander nations, Brannigwaith and Otar, out of military conflict with Otar’s two warlike, yet infinitely more primitive neighbours, though both

Udin and Talimar had made marvellous progress in certain areas with the industrial leavings of

their more peaceful neighbours.

The finest timepieces and precision instruments and machines were universally acknowledged to hail from Udin, whereas the silver and goldsmiths and jewellers of Talimar were without equal. And despite their apparent differences, the black markets of Udin and Talimar had flourished for generations. There was no matron of Udin who did not own Talimari jewelry, and there was no Talimari ship that did not have compasses, telescopes or other instruments made in Udin.

But cultural differences ran deep, and inflexible societal and spiritual canon made conflict inevitable.

All this Erin reflected upon as he boarded the first available ice ship to Port Brun. The Old Order is dead, he mused. Will it be possible to establish a New Order?

For this reason alone he remained reticent about declaring himself heir to what had once been part of the Old Order. How could he or anyone in his stead do so without inflaming old conflicts, old hatreds, old enmities, old wounds, and adherence to old beliefs?

Yet as he left the great ice ship the following day and beheld the strange wonder of Port Brun, he realised that for such things to exist, hope yet remained. And with this realisation, he spirits began to rise.

And as he began making his way through the port city, his thoughts turned to the young captain, Ali, and the mer woman, Gaia, who at this moment were somewhere within the City of Treasures, two lone souls striving against the evil might of the Dark Magi.

Erin paused before the door, and rechecked the address a young dockworker had given him.

Yes, he thought, the Old World is indeed ended. Will the New World have a place for us, I wonder?

With that thought, he knocked upon the door. Time and the world changed then, and his memory of the events that followed remained a vague, heady blur to the end of his days, a series of frozen moments that merged one into the next. Unreality opened the door and greeted him in the form of a Udin woman whose presence was unexpected and welcome . . .

A Udin woman? Here in the North Country? As bewitching as a Siren, whose glad presence in that moment seemed to him as radiant as summer sunshine. She drew him inwards, into a small room with a door at the far end, which led to another small room and yet another door beyond, as though he passed through layers of consciousness into the heart and mind of a dream . . .

. . . and the last door burst open, and he was dragged unceremoniously to the ground, set upon and buried beneath unbearable soul-release and tears, by the hysterical weeping of his wife who threw herself into his arms, by his no-less-hysterical sisters, who like his wife, said his name over and over and over again, as though to reassure themselves that he was real and alive . . .

. . . and afterwards there was warmth and people and laughter, and a hot bath and feasting well into the night, and the sharing of stories over hot punch, and his young wife and his sisters who refused for one moment to leave his side . . .

. . . and at the last some hasty arrangements were made . . .

. . . and he and his young wife were alone together in darkness . . .

. . . at last . . .

. . . and the last moments of that day faded gradually away in warmth and ecstasy; faded like a dream in a haze of gentle caresses and murmured endearments; finally slipping away altogether into the soul-healing arms of blessed and untroubled slumber.

-

Here ends Book One of The Dark Magi.


The Dark Magi

The Dark Magi have subverted the monastic order in the South and mean to take over the known world. People throughout the coastal regions must prepare themselves for war and invasion.

  • Author: greg monks
  • Published: 2015-09-10 05:40:14
  • Words: 69498
The Dark Magi The Dark Magi