As the huge crowd bayed for blood, Sieben the Poet found himself staring around the vast colosseum, its mighty columns and arches, its tiers and statues. Far below on the golden sand of the arena two men were fighting for the glory of their nations. Fifteen thousand people were shouting now, the noise cacophonous like the roaring of some inchoate beast. Sieben lifted a scented handkerchief to his face, seeking to blot out the smell of sweat that enveloped him from all sides.
The colosseum was a marvelous piece of architecture, its columns shaped into statues of ancient heroes and gods, its seats of finest marble covered by cushions of down-filled green velvet. The cushions irritated Sieben, for the color clashed with his bright blue silken tunic inset with shards of opal on the puffed sleeves. The poet was proud of the garment, which had cost a suitably enormous amount of money and had been bought from the best tailor in Drenan. To have it beggared by a poor choice of seat covering was almost more than he could stand. Still, with everyone seated, the effect was muted. Servants moved endlessly through the crowd, bearing trays of cool drinks or sweetmeats, pies, cakes, and savory delicacies. The tiers of the rich were shaded by silken coverings, also in that dreadful green, while the very rich sat in red-cushioned splendor with slaves fanning them. Sieben had tried to change his seat and sit among the nobility, but no amount of flattery or offers of bribes could purchase him a place.
To his right Sieben could just see the edge of the God-King's balcony and the straight backs of two of the Royal Guards in their silver breastplates and white cloaks. Their helms, thought the poet, were particularly magnificent, embossed with gold and crested with white horsehair plumes. That was the beauty of the simple colors, he thought; black, white, silver, and gold were rarely upstaged by upholstery, no matter what its color.
"Is he winning?" asked Majon, the Drenai ambassador, tugging at Sieben's sleeve. "He's taking a fearful battering. The Lentrian has never been beaten, you know. They say he killed two fighters last spring in a competition in Mashrapur. Damn, I bet ten gold Raq on Druss."
Sieben gently lifted the ambassador's fingers from his sleeve, brushing at the bruised silk, and forced his gaze away from the wonders of the architecture to focus briefly on the combat below. The Lentrian hit Druss with an uppercut, then a right cross. Druss backed away, blood seeping from a cut over his left eye. "What odds did you get?" asked Sieben.
The slender ambassador ran his hand over his close-cropped silver hair. "Six to one. I must have been mad."
"Not at all," said Sieben smoothly. "It was patriotism that drove you. Look, I know ambassadors are not well paid, so I will take your bet. Give me the token."
"I couldn't possibly ... I mean, he's being thrashed out there."
"Of course you must. After all, Druss is my friend, and I should have wagered on him out of loyalty." Sieben saw the glint of avarice in the ambassador's dark eyes.
"Well, if you are sure." The man's slim fingers darted into the pearl-beaded leather pouch at his side, producing a small square of papyrus bearing a wax seal and the amount wagered. Sieben took it, and Majon waited with hand outstretched.
"I didn't bring my purse with me," said Sieben, "but I will hand over the money tonight."
"Yes, of course," said Majon, his disappointment obvious.
"I think I'll take a walk around the colosseum," said Sieben. "There is so much to see. I understand there are art galleries and shops on the levels below."
"You don't show much concern for your friend," said Majon.
Sieben ignored the criticism. "My dear ambassador, Druss fights because he loves to fight. Generally one saves one's concern for the poor unfortunates he faces. I will see you later at the celebrations."
Easing himself from his seat, Sieben climbed the marble steps, making his way to the official gambling booth. A gap-toothed cleric was sitting inside the recess. Behind him stood a soldier, guarding the sacks of money already wagered.
"You wish to place a wager?" asked the cleric.
"No, I am waiting to collect."
"You have bet on the Lentrian?"
"No. I bet on the winner. It's an old habit," he answered, with a smile. "Be so good as to have sixty gold pieces available, plus my original ten."
The cleric chuckled. "You bet on the Drenai? It will be a cold day in hell before you see a return on that investment."
"My, I do think I sense a drop in the temperature," Sieben told him with a smile.
In the heat of the arena the Lentrian champion was tiring. Blood was seeping from his broken nose, and his right eye had swollen shut, but even so his strength was prodigious. Druss moved in, ducking beneath a right cross and thundering a blow to the man's midsection; the muscles of the Lentrian's stomach were like woven steel. A punch smashed down onto Druss' neck, and he felt his legs buckle. With a grunt of pain he sent an uppercut into the taller man's bearded chin, and the Lentrian's head snapped back. Druss hammered an overhand right that missed its mark, cracking against the man's temple. The Lentrian wiped blood from his face, then hit Druss with a thundering straight left followed by a right hook that all but spun Druss from his feet.
The crowd was baying, sensing that the end was close. Druss tried to move in and grapple, only to be stopped by a straight left that jarred him to his heels. Blocking a right, he fired home another uppercut. The Lentrian swayed but did not fall. He countered with a chopping blow that took Druss behind the right ear. Druss shrugged it off. The Lentrian's strength was fading; the punch lacked speed and weight.
This was the moment! Druss waded in, sending a combination of punches to the Lentrian's face: three straight lefts followed by a right hook that exploded against the man's chin. The Lentrian spun off balance, tried to right himself, then fell face first to the sand.
A sound like rolling thunder went up, booming around the packed arena. Druss took a deep breath and stepped back, acknowledging the cheers. The new Drenai flag, a white stallion on a field of blue, was hoisted high, fluttering in the afternoon breeze. Striding forward, Druss halted below the royal balcony and bowed to the God-King he could not see.
Behind him two Lentrians ran out and knelt beside their fallen champion. Stretcher bearers followed, and the unconscious man was carried from the arena. Druss waved to the crowd, then walked slowly to the dark mouth of the tunnel that led through to the bathhouses and rest areas for the athletes.
The spear thrower Pellin stood grinning at the tunnel entrance. "Thought he had you there, mountain man."
"It was close," said Druss, spitting blood from his mouth. His face was swollen, and several teeth had been loosened. "He was strong. I'll say that for him."
The two men walked down the tunnel, emerging into the first bathhouse. The sound from the arena was muted there, and around a dozen athletes were relaxing in the three heated pools of marble. Druss sat down beside the first. Rose petals floated on the steamy surface of the water, their fragrance filling the room.
The runner Pars swam across to him. "You look as if a herd of horses has run across your face," he said.
Leaning forward, Druss placed a hand on top of the man's balding head and propelled him down beneath the surface. Pars swam clear and surfaced several yards away; with a sweep of his hand he drenched Druss. Pellin, stripped now of his leggings and tunic, dived into the pool.
Druss peeled off his leggings and slid into the warm water. The relief to his aching muscles was instant, and for some minutes he swam around the pool; then he hauled himself clear. Pars joined him. "Stretch yourself out and I'll knead the aches away," he said. Druss moved to a massage table and lay facedown, where Pars rubbed oil into his palms and began to work expertly on the muscles of his upper back.
Pellin sat down close by, toweling his dark hair, then draping the white cloth over his shoulders. "Did you watch the other contest?" he asked Druss.
"The Gothir man, Klay, is awesome. Fast. Strong chin. That plus a right hand that comes down like a hammer. It was all over in less than twenty heartbeats. Never seen the like, Druss. The Vagrian didn't know what hit him."
"So I heard," Druss grunted as Pars' fingers dug deeply into the swollen muscles of his neck.
"You'll take him, Druss. What does it matter that he's bigger, stronger, faster, and better-looking?"
"And fitter," put in Pellin. "They say he runs five miles every day on the mountains outside the city."
"Yes, I forgot fitter. Younger, too. How old are you, Druss?" asked Pars.
"Thirty," grunted Druss.
"An old man," said Pellin with a wink at Pars. "Still, I'm sure you'll win. Well ... fairly sure."
Druss sat up. "It is good of you youngsters to be so supportive."
"Well, we are a team," said Pellin. "And since you deprived us of Grawal's delightful company, we've sort of adopted you, Druss." Pars began to work on Druss' swollen knuckles. "More seriously, Druss, my friend," said the runner, "your hands are badly bruised. Back home we'd use ice to bring the swelling down. I should soak them in cold water tonight."
"There's three days before the final. I'll be fine by then. How did you fare in your race?"
"I finished second and so will contest the final at least. But I'll not be in the first three. The Gothir man is far better than I, as are the Vagrian and the Chiatze. I cannot match their finish."
"You might surprise yourself," said Druss.
"We're not all like you, mountain man," observed Pellin. "I still find it hard to believe that you could come to these games unprepared and fight your way to the final. You really are a legend." Suddenly he grinned. "Ugly, old, and slow--but still a legend," he added.
Druss chuckled. "You almost fooled me there, laddie. I thought you might be showing some respect for me." He lay back and closed his eyes.
Pars and Pellin strolled away to where a servant stood holding a pitcher of cold water. Seeing them coming, the man filled two goblets. Pellin drained his and accepted a refill, while Pars sipped his slowly. "You didn't tell him about the prophecy," said Pars.
"Neither did you. He'll find out soon enough."
"What do you think he'll do?" asked the bald runner.
Pellin shrugged. "I have known him only for a month, but somehow I don't think he'll want to follow tradition."
"He'll have to!" insisted Pars.
Pellin shook his head. "He's not like other men, my friend. That Lentrian should have won, but he didn't. Druss is a force of nature, and I don't think politics will affect that one jot."
"I'll wager twenty gold Raq you are wrong."
"I'll not take that bet, Pars. You see, I hope for all our sakes that you are right."
From a private balcony high above the crowd the giant blond fighter Klay watched Druss deliver the knockout blow. The Lentrian carried too much weight on his arms and shoulders, and though it gave him incredible power, the punches were too slow and easy to read. But the Drenai made it worthwhile. Klay smiled.
"You find the man amusing, Lord Klay?" Startled, the fighter swung around. The newcomer's face showed no expression, no flicker of muscle. It is like a mask, thought Klay, a golden Chiatze mask, tight and unlined. Even the jet-black hair, dragged back into the tightest of ponytails, was so heavily waxed and dyed that it seemed false, painted onto the overlarge cranium. Klay took a deep breath, annoyed that he could have been surprised on his own balcony and angry that he had not heard the swish of the curtains or the rustle of the man's heavy ankle-length robe of black velvet.
"You move like an assassin, Garen-Tsen," said Klay.
"Sometimes, my lord, it is necessary to move with stealth," observed the Chiatze, his voice gentle and melodic. Klay looked into the man's odd eyes, as slanted as spear points. One was a curious brown, flecked with shards of gray; the other was as blue as a summer sky.
"Stealth is necessary only when among enemies, surely," ventured Klay.
"Indeed so. But the best of one's enemies masquerade as friends. What is it about the Drenai that amuses you?" Garen-Tsen moved past Klay to the balcony's edge, staring down into the arena below. "I see nothing amusing. He is a barbarian, and he fights like one." He turned back, his fleshless face framed by the high, arched collar of his robe.
Klay found his dislike of the man growing, but masking his feelings, he considered Garen-Tsen's question. "He does not amuse me, Minister. I admire him. With the right training he could be very good indeed. And he is a crowd pleaser. The mob always loves a plucky warrior. And by heaven, this Druss lacks nothing in courage. I wish I had the opportunity to train him. It would make for a better contest."
"It will be over swiftly, you think?"
Klay shook his head. "No. There is a great depth to the man's strength. It is born of his pride and his belief in his invincibility; you can see it in him as he fights. It will be a long and arduous battle."
"Yet you will prevail? As the God-King has prophesied?" For the first time Klay noticed a slight change in the minister's expression.
"I should beat him, Garen-Tsen. I am bigger, stronger, faster, and better trained. But there is always a rogue element in any fight. I could slip just as a punch connects. I could fall ill before the bout and be sluggish, lacking in energy. I could lose concentration and allow an opening." Klay gave a wide smile, for the minister's expression was openly worried.
"This will not happen," he said. "The prophecy will come true."
Klay thought carefully before answering. "The God-King's belief in me is a source of great pride. I shall fight all the better for it."
"Good. Let us hope it has the opposite effect on the Drenai. You will be at the banquet this evening, my lord? The God-King has requested your presence. He wishes you to sit alongside him."
"It is a great honor," Klay answered, with a bow.
"Indeed it is." Garen-Tsen moved to the curtained doorway, then swung back. "You know an athlete named Lepant?"
"The runner? Yes. He trains at my gymnasium. Why?"
"He died this morning during questioning. He looked so strong. Did you ever see signs of weakness in his heart? Dizziness, chest pain?"
"No," said Klay, remembering the bright-eyed garrulous boy and his fund of jokes and stories. "Why was he being questioned?"
"He was spreading slanders, and we had reason to believe he was a member of a secret group pledged to the assassination of the God-King."
"Nonsense. He was just a stupid boy who told bad-taste jokes."
"So it would appear," agreed Garen-Tsen. "Now he is a dead boy who will never again tell a bad-taste joke. Was he a very talented runner?"
"Good. Then we have lost nothing." The odd-colored eyes stared at Klay for several seconds. "It would be better, my lord, if you ceased to listen to jokes. In cases of treason there is guilt by association."
"I shall remember your advice, Garen-Tsen."
After the minister had departed, Klay wandered down to the arena gallery. It was cooler there, and he enjoyed walking among the many antiquities. The gallery had been included on the arena plans at the insistence of the king--long before his diseased mind had finally eaten away his reason. There were some fifty stalls and shops there, where discerning buyers could purchase historical artifacts or beautifully made copies. There were ancient books, paintings, porcelain, even weapons.
People in the gallery stopped as he approached, bowing respectfully to the Gothir champion. Klay acknowledged each salutation with a smile and a nod of his head. Though huge, he moved with the easy grace of an athlete, always in balance and always aware. He paused before a bronze statue of the God-King. It was a fine piece, but Klay felt the addition of lapis lazuli for the pupils was too bizarre in a face of bronze. The merchant who owned the piece stepped forward. He was short and stout with a forked beard and a ready smile. "You are looking very fine, Lord Klay," he said. "I watched your fight--what little there was of it. You were magnificent."
"Thank you, sir."
"To think your opponent traveled so far only to be humiliated in such a fashion!"
"He was not humiliated, sir, merely beaten. He had earned his right to face me by competing against a number of very good fistfighters. And he had the misfortune to slip on the sand just as I struck him."
"Of course, of course! Your humility does you great credit, my lord," the man said smoothly. "I see you were admiring the bronze. It is a wonderful work by a new sculptor. He will go far." He lowered his voice. "For anyone else, my lord, the price would be one thousand in silver. But for the mighty Klay I could come down to eight hundred."
"I have two busts of the emperor; he gave them to me himself. But thank you for your offer."
Klay moved away from the man, and a young woman stepped before him. She was holding the hand of a fair-haired boy of around ten years of age. "Pardon me, lord, for this impertinence," she said, bowing deeply, "but my son would dearly like to meet you."
"Not at all," said Klay, dropping to one knee before the boy. "What is your name, lad?"
"Atka, sir," he replied. "I saw all your fights so far. You are ... you are wonderful."
"Praise indeed. Will you watch the final?"
"Oh, yes, sir. I shall be here to see you thrash the Drenai. I watched him, too. He almost lost."
"I don't think so, Atka. He is a tough man, a man of rock and iron. I wagered on him myself."
"He can't beat you, though, sir. Can he?" asked the boy, his eyes widening as doubt touched him.
Klay smiled. "All men can be beaten, Atka. You will just have to wait a few days and see."
Klay stood and smiled at the blushing young woman. "He is a fine boy," said the champion. Taking her hand, he kissed it, then moved away, pausing to study the paintings on the far wall. Many were landscapes of the desert and the mountains; others depicted young women in various stages of undress. Some were of hunting scenes, while two, which caught Klay's eye, were of wildflowers. At the far end of the gallery was a long stall behind which stood an elderly Chiatze. Klay made his way to the man and studied the artifacts laid out so neatly. They were mostly small statuettes surrounded by brooches, amulets, bracelets, bangles, and rings. Klay lifted a small ivory figurine, no more than four inches tall. It was of a beautiful woman in a flowing dress. There were flowers in her hair, and in her hand she held a snake, its tail coiled around her wrist.
"This is very lovely," he said.
The small Chiatze nodded and smiled. "She is Shul-sen, the bride of Oshikai Demon-bane. The figurine is close to a thousand years old."
"How can you tell?"
"I am Chorin-Tsu, lord, the royal embalmer and a student of history. I found this piece during an archaeological survey near the site of the fabled Battle of Five Armies. I am certain that it is no less than nine centuries old." Klay lifted the figurine close to his eyes. The woman's face was oval, her eyes slanted; she seemed to be smiling.
"She was Chiatze, this Shul-sen?" he asked.
Chorin-Tsu spread his hands. "That depends, lord, on your perspective. She was, as I told you, the wife of Oshikai, and he is considered the father of the Nadir. It was he who led the rebel tribes from the lands of the Chiatze and fought his way to the lands now ruled by the Gothir. After his death the tribes roamed free, warring on one another, even as now. So if he was the first Nadir, then Shul-sen was ... what? Nadir or Chiatze?"
"Both," said Klay. "And beautiful, too. What happened to her?"
The Chiatze shrugged, and Klay saw sorrow in the dark, slanted eyes. "That depends on which version of historical events you happen to believe. For myself I think she was murdered soon after Oshikai's death. All the records point to this, though some stories have her sailing to a mythic land beyond the sea. If you have romantic leanings, perhaps that is the story you should cling to."
"I tend to hold to the truth where I can," said Klay. "But in this case I would like to believe she lived happily somewhere. I would guess we will never know."
Chorin-Tsu spread his hands once more. "As a student I like to think that one day the mists will be opened. Perhaps I might find some documentary evidence."
"If you do so, let me know. Meanwhile I shall purchase this figurine. Have it delivered to my house."
"You wish to know the price, lord?"
"I am sure it will be a fair one."
"Indeed it will, sir."
Klay turned away, then swung back. "Tell me, Chorin-Tsu: How is it that the royal embalmer runs a stall of antiquities?"
"Embalming, lord, is my profession. History is my passion. And as with all passions, they must be shared to be enjoyed. Your delight in the piece brings me great pleasure."
Klay moved on through the gallery arch and to the Hall of Cuisine. Two guards opened the door to the beautifully furnished dining room of the nobility. Klay had long since lost any sense of nervousness on entering such establishments, for despite the lowliness of his birth, his legend was now so great among the people that he was considered higher than most nobles. There were few diners present, but Klay spotted the Drenai ambassador, Majon, engaged in a heated discussion with a fop in a bejeweled blue tunic. The fop was tall and slim and very handsome, his hair light brown and held in place by a silver headband adorned with an opal. Klay approached them. Majon did not at first notice the fighter and continued to rail at his companion.
"I do think this is unfair, Sieben. After all, you won--" At that moment he saw Klay, and instantly his face changed, a broad smile appearing. "My dear chap, so good to see you again. Please do join us. It would be such an honor. We were talking about you only moments ago. This is Sieben the Poet."
"I have heard your work performed," said Klay, "and I have read with interest the saga of Druss the Legend."
The poet gave a wolfish smile. "You've read the work, and soon you'll face the man. I have to tell you, sir, that I shall be wagering against you."
"Then you will forgive me for not wishing you luck," said Klay, sitting down.
"Did you watch today's bout?" asked Majon.
"I did indeed, Ambassador. Druss is an interesting fighter. It seems that pain spurs him to greater efforts. He is indomitable and very strong."
"He always wins," said Sieben happily. "It's a talent he has."
"Sieben is particularly pleased today," Majon put in icily. "He has won sixty gold pieces."
"I won also," said Klay.
"You bet on Druss?" asked Sieben.
"Yes. I had studied both men and did not feel the Lentrian had the heart to match your man. He also lacked speed in his left, which gave Druss the chance to roll with the punches. But you should advise him to change his attacking stance. He tends to duck his head and charge, which makes him an easy target for an uppercut."
"I'll be sure to tell him," promised Sieben.
"I have a training ground at my house. He is welcome to use it."
"That is a very kind offer," put in Majon.
"You seem very confident, sir," said Sieben. "Does it not concern you that Druss has never lost?"
"No more than it concerns me that I have never lost. Whatever else happens, one of us will surrender that perfect record. But the sun will still shine, and the earth will not topple. Now, my friends, shall we order some food?"
Screened by the undergrowth, he knelt by the trail, dark eyes scanning the boulders ahead of him and the trees beyond. Dressed as he was in a shirt of fringed buckskin, and brown leather leggings and boots, the tall man was virtually invisible, kneeling in the shadows of the trees.
The sun was high in a cloudless summer sky, and the spoor was more than three hours old. Insects had crisscrossed the hoofmarks, but the edges of the prints were still firm.
Forty horsemen, laden with plunder ...
Shadak faded back through the undergrowth to where his horse was tethered. He stroked the beast's long neck and lifted his swordbelt from the back of the saddle. Strapping it to his waist, he drew the two short swords; they were of the finest Vagrian steel and double edged. He thought for a moment, then sheathed the blades and reached for the bow and quiver strapped to the saddle pommel. The bow was of Vagrian horn, a hunting weapon capable of launching a two-foot-long arrow across a killing space of sixty paces. The doeskin quiver held twenty shafts that Shadak had crafted himself: the flights of goose feather, stained red and yellow, the heads of pointed iron, not barbed, and easily withdrawn from the bodies of the slain. Swiftly he strung the bow and notched an arrow to the string. Then looping the quiver over his shoulder, he made his way carefully back to the trail.
Would they have left a rearguard? It was unlikely, for there were no Drenai soldiers within fifty miles.
But Shadak was a cautious man. And he knew Collan. Tension rose in him as he pictured the smiling face and the cruel, mocking eyes. "No anger," he told himself. But it was hard, bitterly hard. Angry men make mistakes, he reminded himself. The hunter must be cold as iron.
Silently he edged his way forward. A towering boulder jutted from the earth some twenty paces ahead and to his left; to the right was a cluster of smaller rocks, no more than four feet high. Shadak took a deep breath and rose from his hiding place.
From behind the large boulder a man stepped into sight, bowstring bent. Shadak dropped to his knee, the attacker's arrow slashing through the air above his head. The bowman tried to leap back behind the shelter of the boulder, but even as he was dropping, Shadak loosed a shaft which plunged into the bowman's throat, punching through the skin at the back of his neck.
Another attacker ran forward, this time from Shadak's right. With no time to notch a second arrow, Shadak swung the bow, lashing it across the man's face. As the attacker stumbled, Shadak dropped the bow and drew his two short swords; with one sweeping blow he cut through the neck of the fallen man. Two more attackers ran into view and he leapt to meet them. Both men wore iron breastplates, their necks and heads protected by chain mail, and they carried sabers.
"You'll not die easily, you bastard!" shouted the first, a tall, wide-shouldered warrior. Then his eyes narrowed as he recognized the swordsman facing him. Fear replaced battle lust--but he was too close to Shadak to withdraw and made a clumsy lunge with his saber. Shadak parried the blade with ease, his second sword lancing forward into the man's mouth and through the bones of his neck. As the swordsman died, the second warrior backed away.
"We didn't know it was you, I swear!" he said, hands trembling.
"Now you do," said Shadak softly.
Without a word the man turned and ran back toward the trees as Shadak sheathed his swords and moved to his bow. Notching an arrow, he drew back on the string. The shaft flashed through the air to punch home into the running man's thigh. He screamed and fell. As Shadak loped to where he lay, the man rolled to his back, dropping his sword.
"For pity's sake don't kill me!" he pleaded.
"You had no pity back in Corialis," said Shadak. "But tell me where Collan is heading and I'll let you live." A wolf howled in the distance, a lonely sound. It was answered by another, then another.
"There's a village ... twenty miles southeast," said the man, his eyes fixed on the short sword in Shadak's hand. "We scouted it. Plenty of young women. Collan and Harib Ka plan to raid it for slaves, then take them to Mashrapur."
Shadak nodded. "I believe you," he said at last.
"You're going to let me live, yes? You promised," the wounded man whimpered.
"I always keep my promises," said Shadak, disgusted at the man's weakness. Reaching down, he wrenched his shaft clear of the man's leg. Blood gushed from the wound, and the injured warrior groaned. Shadak wiped the arrow clean on the man's cloak, then stood and walked to the body of the first man he had killed. Kneeling beside the corpse, he recovered his arrow and then strode to where the raiders had tethered their horses. Mounting the first, he led the others back down the trail to where his gelding waited. Gathering the reins, he led the four mounts back out onto the trail.
"What about me?" shouted the wounded man.
Shadak turned in the saddle. "Do your best to keep the wolves away," he advised. "By dark they will have picked up the scent of blood."
"Leave me a horse! In the name of Mercy!"
"I am not a merciful man," said Shadak.
Miriel had been running for slightly more than an hour. In that time she had covered around nine miles from the cabin in the high pasture, down to the stream path, through the valley and the pine woods, up across the crest of Ax Ridge, and back along the old deer trail.
She was tiring, heartbeat rising, lungs battling to supply oxygen to her weary muscles. But still she pushed on, determined to reach the cabin before the sun climbed to its noon high.
The slope was slippery from the previous night's rain, and she stumbled twice, the leather knife scabbard at her waist digging into her bare thigh. A touch of anger spurred her on. Without the long hunting knife and the throwing blade strapped to her left wrist she could have made better time. But Father's word was law, and Miriel had not left the cabin until her weapons had been in place.
"There is no one here but us," she had argued, not for the first time.
"Expect the best, prepare for the worst," was all he had said.
And so she ran with the heavy scabbard slapping against her thigh and the hilt of the throwing blade chafing the skin of her forearm.
Coming to a bend in the trail, she leapt over the fallen log, landing lightly and cutting left toward the last rise, her long legs increasing their pace, her bare feet digging into the soft earth. Her slim calves were burning, her lungs hot. But she was exultant, for the sun was at least twenty minutes from its noon high and she was but three minutes from the cabin.
A shadow moved to her left, talons and teeth flashing toward her. Instantly Miriel threw herself forward, hitting the ground on her right side and rolling to her feet. The lioness, confused at having missing her victim with the first leap, crouched down, ears flat to her skull, tawny eyes focusing on the tall young woman.
Miriel's mind was racing. Action and reaction. Take control!
Her hunting knife slid into her hand, and she shouted at the top of her voice. The lioness, shocked by the sound, backed away. Miriel's throat was dry, her heart hammering, but her hand was steady on the blade. She shouted once more and jumped toward the beast. Unnerved by the suddenness of the move, the creature slunk back several more paces. Miriel licked her lips. It should have run by now. Fear rose, but she swallowed it down.
Fear is like fire in your belly. Controlled, it warms you and keeps you alive. Unleashed, it burns and destroys you.
Her hazel eyes remained locked to the tawny gaze of the lioness, and she noted the beast's ragged condition and the deep angry scar on its right foreleg. No longer fast, it could not catch the swift deer, and it was starving. It would not--could not--back away from the fight.
Miriel thought of everything Father had told her about lions: Ignore the head--the bone is too thick for an arrow to penetrate. Send your shaft in behind the front leg, up and into the lung. But he had said nothing about fighting such a beast when armed with only a knife.
The sun slid from behind an autumn cloud, and light shone from the knife blade. Instantly Miriel angled the blade, directing the gleam into the eyes of the lioness. The great head twisted, the eyes blinking against the harsh glare. Miriel shouted again.
But instead of fleeing, the lioness suddenly charged, leaping high toward the girl.
For an instant only Miriel froze. Then the knife swept up. A black crossbow bolt punched into the creature's neck just behind the ear, with a second slicing into its side. The weight of the lioness struck Miriel, hurling her back, but the hunting knife plunged into the beast's belly.
Miriel lay very still, the lioness on top of her, its breath foul on her face. But the talons did not rake her, or the fangs close on her. With a coughing grunt the lioness died. Miriel closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and eased herself from beneath the body. Her legs felt weak, and she sat on the trail, her hands trembling.
A tall man, carrying a small double crossbow of black metal, emerged from the undergrowth and crouched down beside her. "You did well," he said, his voice deep.
She looked up into his dark eyes and forced a smile. "It would have killed me."
"Perhaps," he agreed. "But your blade reached its heart."
Exhaustion flowed over her like a warm blanket, and she lay back, breathing slowly and deeply. Once she would have sensed the lioness long before any danger threatened, but that talent was lost to her now, as her mother and her sister were lost to her: Danyal killed in an accident five years earlier and Krylla wed and moved away the previous summer. Pushing such thoughts from her mind, she sat up. "You know," she whispered, "I was really tired when I came to the last rise. I was breathing hard, and my limbs felt as if they were made of lead. But when the lioness leapt, all my weariness vanished." She gazed up at her father.
He smiled and nodded. "I have experienced that many times. Strength can always be found in the heart of a fighter, and such a heart will rarely let you down."
She glanced at the dead lioness. "Never shoot for the head--that's what you told me," she said, tapping the first bolt jutting from the creature's neck.
He shrugged and grinned. "I missed."
"That's not very comforting. I thought you were perfect."
"I'm getting old. Are you cut?"
"I don't think so ..." Swiftly she checked her arms and legs, as wounds from a lion's claws or fangs often became poisonous. "No. I was very lucky."
"Yes, you were," he agreed. "But you made your luck by doing everything right. I'm proud of you."
"Why were you here?"
"You needed me," he answered. Rising smoothly to his feet, he reached out, drawing her upright. "Now skin the beast and quarter it. There's nothing quite like lion meat."
"I don't think I want to eat it," she said. "I think I'd like to forget about it."
"Never forget," he admonished her. "This was a victory, and you are stronger for it. I'll see you later." Retrieving his bolts, the tall man cleaned them of blood, returned them to the leather quiver at his side.
"You're going to the waterfall?" she asked him softly.
"For a little while," he answered, his voice distant. He turned back to her. "You think I spend too much time there?"
"No," she told him sadly. "It's not the time you sit there nor the effort you put into tending the grave. It's you. She's been ... gone ... now for five years. You should start living again. You need ... more than this."
He nodded, but she knew she had not reached him. He smiled and laid his hand on her shoulder. "One day you'll find a love, and then we can talk on equal terms. I do not mean that to sound patronizing. You are bright and intelligent. You have courage and wit. But sometimes it is like trying to describe colors to a blind man. Love, as I hope you will find, has great power. Even death cannot destroy it. And I still love her." Leaning forward, he drew her toward him, kissing her brow. "Now skin that beast. And I'll see you at dusk."
She watched him walk away, a tall man moving with grace and care, his black and silver hair drawn back into a tightly tied ponytail, his crossbow hanging from his belt.
And then he was gone, vanished into the shadows.
The waterfall was narrow, no more than six feet wide, flowing over white boulders in a glittering cascade to a leaf-shaped bowl thirty feet across and forty-five feet long. At its most southern point a second fall occurred, the stream surging on to join the river two miles to the south. Golden leaves swirled on the surface of the water, and with each breath of breeze more spiraled down from the trees.
Around the pool grew many flowers, most of them planted by the man who now knelt by the graveside. He glanced up at the sky. The sun was losing its power, the cold winds of autumn flowing over the mountains. Waylander sighed. A time of dying. He gazed at the golden leaves floating on the water and remembered sitting there with Danyal and the children on another autumn day ten lifetimes earlier.
Krylla had been sitting with her tiny feet in the water, with Miriel swimming among the leaves. "They are like souls of the departed," Danyal had told Krylla. "Floating on the sea of life toward a place of rest."
He sighed again and returned his attention to the flower-garlanded mound beneath which lay all he had lived for.
"Miriel fought a lion today," he said. "She stood and did not panic. You would have been proud of her." Laying his ebony-handled crossbow to one side, he idly dead-headed the geraniums growing by the headstone, removing the faded, dry red blooms. The season was late, and it was unlikely they would flower again. Soon he would need to pull them, shaking dry the roots and hanging them in the cabin, ready for planting in the spring.
"But she is still too slow," he added. "She does not act with instinct but with remembered learning. Not like Krylla." He chuckled. "You remember how the village boys used to gather around her? She knew how to handle them, the tilt of the head, the sultry smile. She took that from you."
Reaching out, he touched the cold rectangular marble headstone, his index finger tracing the carved lines.
the pebble in the moonlight
The grave was shaded by elms and beech, and there were roses growing close by, huge yellow blooms filling the air with sweet fragrance. He had bought them in Kasyra, seven bushes. Three had died on the journey back, but the remainder had flourished in the rich clay soil.
"I'm going to have to take her to the city soon," he said. "She's eighteen now, and she needs to learn. I'll find a husband for her." He sighed. "It means leaving you for a while. I'm not looking forward to that."
The silence grew, with even the wind in the leaves dying down. His dark eyes were distant, his memories solemn. Smoothly he rose and, taking up the clay bowl beside the headstone, moved to the pool, filled the bowl, and began to water the roses. The previous day's rain had been little more than a shower, and the roses liked to drink deep.
Kreeg crouched low in the bushes, his crossbow loaded. How easy, he thought, unable to suppress a smile.
Find Waylander and kill him. He had to admit that the prospect of such a hunt had frightened him. After all, Waylander the Slayer was no mean opponent. When his family had been slain by raiders, he had roamed the land until he had hunted down every one of the killers. Waylander was a legend in the Guild, a capable swordsman but a brilliant knife fighter and a crossbowman without peer. More than that, he was said to possess mystical abilities, always sensing when danger was near.
Kreeg sighted the crossbow at the tall man's back. Mystical abilities? Pah. In one heartbeat he would be dead.
The man at the graveside picked up a clay bowl and moved toward the pool. Kreeg shifted his aim, but his intended victim crouched down, filling the bowl. Kreeg lowered his bow a fraction, slowly letting out his held breath. Waylander was side-on now, and a sure killing shot would have to be to the head. What was he doing with the water? Kreeg watched the tall man kneel by the roses, tipping the bowl and splashing the contents around the roots. He'll go back to the grave, thought Kreeg. And once there, I'll take him.
So much in life depended on luck. When the kill order had come to the Guild, Kreeg had been out of money and living off a whore in Kasyra, the gold he had earned from killing the Ventrian merchant long since vanished in the gambling dens of the city's south side. Now Kreeg blessed the bad luck that had dogged him in Kasyra. For all life, he knew, was a circle. And it was in Kasyra that he had heard of the hermit in the mountains, the tall widower with the shy daughter. He thought of the message from the Guild:
Seek out a man named Dakeyras. He has a wife, Danyal, and a daughter, Miriel. The man has black and silver hair and dark eyes and is tall, close to fifty years of age. He will be carrying a small double crossbow of ebony and bronze. Kill him and bring the crossbow to Drenan as proof of success. Move with care. The man is Waylander. Ten thousand in gold is waiting.
In Kasyra Kreeg had despaired of earning such a fabulous sum. Then--blessed be the gods--he had told the whore about the hunt.
"There's a man with a daughter called Miriel who lives in the mountains to the north," she had said. "I've not seen him, but I met his daughters years ago at the Priests' School. We learned our letters there."
"Do you remember the mother's name?"
"I think it was something like Daneel ... Donalia ..."
"Danyal?" he had whispered, sitting up in bed, the sheet falling from his lean, scarred body.
"That's it," she had said.
Kreeg's mouth had gone dry, his heart palpitating. Ten thousand! But Waylander? What chance would Kreeg have against such an enemy?
For almost a week he toured Kasyra, asking about the mountain man. Fat Sheras the miller saw him about twice a year and remembered the small crossbow.
"He's very quiet," said Sheras, "but I wouldn't like to see his bad side, if you take my meaning. Hard man. Cold eyes. He used to be almost friendly, but then his wife died--five ... six years ago. Horse fell, rolled on her. There were two daughters, twins. Good-looking girls. One married a boy from the south and moved away. The other is still with him. Shy child. Too thin for my taste."
Goldin the tavern keeper, a thin-faced refugee from the Gothir lands, also remembered him. "When the wife was killed, he came here for a while and drank his sorrows away. He didn't say much. One night he just collapsed, and I left him lying outside the door. His daughters came and helped him home. They were around twelve then. The city elders were talking of removing them from his care. In the end he paid for places at the Priests' School, and they lived there for almost three years."
Kreeg was uplifted by Goldin's tale. If the great Way-lander had taken to drinking heavily, then he was no longer to be feared. But his hopes evaporated as the tavern keeper continued.
"He's never been popular. Keeps to himself too much," said Goldin. "But he killed a rogue bear last year, and that pleased people. The bear slaughtered a young farmer and his family. Dakeyras hunted it down. Amazing! He used a small crossbow. Taric saw it. The bear charged him, and he just stood there, then, right at the last moment, as the bear reared up before him, he put two bolts up through its open mouth and into the brain. Taric says he's never seen the like. Cold as ice."
Kreeg found Taric, a slim blond hostler, working at the earl's stables.
"We tracked the beast for three days," he said, sitting back on a bale of hay and drinking deeply from the leather-bound flask of brandy Kreeg offered him. "Never saw him break a sweat--and he's not a young man. And when the bear reared up, he just leveled the bow and loosed. Incredible! There's no fear in the man."
"Why were you with him?"
Taric smiled. "I was trying to pay court to Miriel, but I got nowhere. Shy, you know. I gave up in the end. And he's a strange one. Not sure I'd want him for a father-in-law. Spends most of his time by his wife's grave."
Kreeg's spirits soared anew. That was what he had been hoping for. Hunting a man through a forest was chancy at best. Knowing his victim's habits made the task slightly less hazardous, but to find out that there was one place the victim always visited ... that was a gift from the gods. And a graveside, at that. Waylander's mind would be occupied, full of sorrow, perhaps, and fond memories.
So it had proved. Kreeg, following Taric's directions, had located the waterfall soon after dawn that morning and had found a hiding place that overlooked the headstone. Now all that was left was the killing shot. Kreeg's gaze flickered to the ebony crossbow still lying on the grass beside the grave.
Ten thousand in gold! He licked his thin lips and carefully wiped his sweating palm on the leaf-green tunic he wore.
The tall man walked back to the pool, collecting more water, then crossed to the farthest rosebushes, crouching once more by the roots. Kreeg switched his gaze to the headstone. Forty feet away. At that distance the barbed bolt would punch through Waylander's back, ripping through the lungs and exiting through the chest. Even if he missed the heart, his victim would die within minutes, choking on his own blood.
Kreeg was anxious for the kill to be over, and his eyes sought out the tall man.
He was not in sight.
Kreeg blinked. The clearing was empty.
"You missed your chance," came a cold voice.
Kreeg swung, trying to bring the crossbow to bear. He had one glimpse of his victim, arm raised, something shining in his hand. The arm swept down. It was as if a bolt of pure sunlight had exploded within Kreeg's skull. There was no pain, no other sensation. He felt the crossbow slipping from his hands and the world spinning.
His last thought was about luck.
It had not changed at all.
Waylander knelt by the body and lifted the ornate crossbow the man had held. The shoulder stock of ebony had been expertly crafted and embossed with swirling gold. The bow itself was of steel, most likely Ventrian, for its finish was silky smooth and there was not a blemish to be seen. Putting aside the weapon, he returned his scrutiny to the corpse. The man was lean and tough, his face hard, the chin square, the mouth thin. Waylander was sure he had never seen him before. Leaning forward, he dragged his knife clear of the man's eye socket, wiping the blade across the grass. Drying the knife against the dead man's tunic, he slipped it once more into the black leather sheath strapped to his left forearm.
A swift search of the man's clothing revealed nothing save four copper coins and a hidden knife hanging from a thong at his throat. Taking hold of the leaf-green tunic, Waylander hauled the corpse upright, hoisting the body over his right shoulder. Foxes and wolves would fight over the remains, and he wanted no such squabbles near Danyal's grave.
Slowly he made his way to the second waterfall, hurling the body out over the rim and watching it plummet to the rushing stream below. At first the impact wedged the corpse against two boulders, but slowly the pull of the water exerted itself and Kreeg's lifeless form floated away facedown toward the distant river. Retrieving his own crossbow and taking up the assassin's weapon, Waylander made his way back to the cabin.
Smoke was lazily drifting up from the stone chimney, and he paused at the edge of the trees, staring without pleasure at the home he had crafted for Danyal and himself. Built against the base of a rearing cliff, protected from above by an overhang of rock, the log cabin was sixty feet long, with three large shuttered windows and one door. The ground before it had been cleared of all trees, bushes, and boulders, and no one could approach within a hundred feet without being seen.
The cabin was a fortress, yet there was beauty also. Danyal had covered the corner joints with mottled stones of red and blue and had planted flowers beneath the windows, roses that climbed and clung to the wooden walls, pink and gold against the harsh ridged bark.
Waylander scanned the open ground, searching the tree line for any second assassin who might be hidden, but he could see no one. Carefully keeping to cover, he circled the cabin, checking for tracks and finding none save those made by his own moccasins and Miriel's bare feet. Satisfied at last, he crossed to the cabin and stepped inside. Miriel had prepared a meal of hot oats and wild strawberries, the last of the season. She smiled as he entered, but the smile faded as she saw the crossbow he carried.
"Where did you find that?" she asked.
"There was a man hidden near the graveside."
"I don't believe so. This bow would cost perhaps a hundred gold pieces. It is a beautifully crafted weapon. I think he was an assassin."
"Why would he be hunting you?"
Waylander shrugged. "There was a time when I had a price on my head. Perhaps I still have. Or maybe I killed his brother or his father. Who knows? One thing is certain; he can't tell me."
She sat down at the long oak table, watching him. "You are angry," he said at last.
"Yes. He shouldn't have gotten that close. I should have been dead."
"He was hidden in the undergrowth some forty paces from the graveside, waiting for the killing shot. When I moved to get water for the roses, I saw a bird fly down to land in the tree above him, but it veered off at the last moment."
"It could have been a fox or any sudden movement," she pointed out. "Birds are skittish."
"Yes, it could have been," he agreed. "But it wasn't. And if he'd had enough confidence to try for a head shot, I would now by lying beside Danyal."
"Then we've both been lucky today," she said.
He nodded but did not answer, his mind still puzzling over the incident. For ten years they had lived without his past returning to haunt him. In these mountains he was merely the widower Dakeyras. Who, after all this time, would send an assassin after him?
And how many more would come?
The sun was hanging over the western peaks, a blazing cooper disk of fire casting a last defiant glare over the mountainside. Miriel squinted against the light.
"It's too bright," she complained.
But his hand swept up, the wooden chopping board sailing into the sky. Smoothly she brought the crossbow to her shoulder, her fingers pressing the bronze trigger. The bolt leapt from the weapon, missing the arcing wood by little more than a foot.
"I said it was too bright," she repeated.
"Picture failure and it will happen," he told her sternly, recovering the wooden board.
"Let me throw it for you, then."
"I do not need the practice--you do!"
"You couldn't hit it, could you? Admit it?"
He gazed into her sparkling eyes and noted the sunlight glinting red on her hair and the bronzed skin of her shoulders. "You ought to be married," he said suddenly. "You are far too beautiful to be stuck on a mountainside with an old man."
"Don't try to evade the issue," she scolded, snatching the board from him and walking back ten paces. He chuckled and shook his head, accepting defeat. Carefully he eased back the steel string of the lower bow arm. The spring-loaded hook clicked, and he inserted a short black bolt, gently pressing the notch against the string. Repeating the maneuver with the upper bow arm, he adjusted the tension in the curved bronze triggers. The weapon had cost him a small fortune in opals many years before, but it had been crafted by a master and Waylander had never regretted the purchase.
He looked up and was about to ask Miriel to throw when she suddenly hurled the board high. The sunlight seared his eyes, but he waited until the spinning board reached its highest point. Extending his arm, he pressed the first bronze trigger. The bolt flashed through the air, hammering into the board, half splitting it. As it fell, he released the second bolt. The board exploded into shards.
"Horrible man!" she said.
He made a low bow. "You should feel privileged," he told her, holding back his smile. "I don't usually perform without payment."
"Throw again," she ordered him, restringing the crossbow.
"The wood is broken," he pointed out.
"Throw the largest piece."
Retrieving his bolts, he hefted the largest chunk of wood. It was no more than four inches across and less than a foot long. "Are you ready?"
With a flick of his wrist he spun the chunk high into the air. The crossbow came up, and the bolt sang, plunging into the wood. Waylander applauded the shot. Miriel gave an elaborate bow.
"Women are supposed to curtsey," he said.
"And they are supposed to wear dresses and learn embroidery," she retorted.
"True," he conceded. "How do you like the assassin's bow?"
"It has good balance, and it is very light."
"Ventrian ebony, and the stock is hollowed. Are you ready for some swordplay?"
She laughed. "Is your pride ready for another pounding?"
"No," he admitted. "I think we'll have an early night." She looked disappointed as they gathered their weapons and set off back to the cabin. "I think you need a better swordmaster than I," he told her as they walked. "It is your best weapon, and you are truly skilled. I'll think on it."
"I thought you were the best," she chided.
"Fathers always seem that way," he said dryly. "But no. With bow or knife I am superb. With the sword? Only excellent."
"And so modest. Is there anything at which you do not excel?"
"Yes," he answered, his smile fading.
Increasing his pace, he walked on, his mind lost in painful memories. His first family had been butchered by raiders, his wife, his baby girls, and his son. The picture was bright in his mind. He had found the boy lying dead in the flower garden, his little face surrounded by blooms.
And five years before, having found love a second time, he had watched helplessly as Danyal's horse had struck a hidden tree root. The stallion had hit the ground hard, rolling, trapping Danyal beneath it and crushing her chest. She had died within minutes, her body racked with pain.
"Is there anything at which you do not excel?"
I cannot keep alive those I love.
The night sky over the mountains was clear and bright, the stars like diamonds on sable. It was a late winter night of cold and terrible beauty, the snow hanging heavy on the branches of pine and cedar. There was no color here, no sense of life. The land lay silent except for the occasional crack of an overladen branch or the soft, whispering sound of fallen snow being drifted by the harsh north wind.
A hooded rider on a dark horse emerged from the tree line, his mount plodding slowly through the thick snow. Bent low over the saddle, he rode on, his head bowed against the wind, his gloved hands holding his snow-crowned gray cloak tightly at the neck. As he came into the open, he seemed to become a focus for the angry wind, which howled around him. Undaunted, he urged the horse on. A white owl launched itself from a high treetop and glided down past the horse and rider. A thin rat scurried across the moonlit snow, swerving as the owl's talons touched its back. The swerve almost carried it clear.
In this frozen place "almost" was a death sentence. Everything here was black and white, sharp and clearly defined, with no delicate shades of gray. Stark contrasts. Success or failure, life or death. No second chances, no excuses.
As the owl flew away with its prey, the rider glanced up. In a world without color his bright blue eyes shone silver-gray in a face as dark as ebony. The black man touched heels to his tired mount, steering the animal toward the woods. "We are both tired," whispered the rider, patting the gelding's long neck. "But we'll stop soon."
Nogusta looked at the sky. It was still clear. No fresh snow tonight, he thought, which meant that the tracks they were following would still be visible come dawn. Moonlight filtered through the tall trees, and Nogusta began to seek a resting place. Despite the heavy hooded gray cloak and the black woolen shirt and leggings, he was cold all the way to the bone. But it was his ears that were suffering the most. Un-der normal circumstances he would have wrapped his scarf around his face. Not a wise move, however, when tracking three desperate men. He needed to be alert for every sound and movement. These men had already killed and would not hesitate to do so again.
Looping the reins over his pommel, he lifted his hands to his ears, rubbing at the skin. The pain was intense. Do not fear the cold, he warned himself. The cold is life. Fear should come only when his body stopped fighting the cold, when it began to feel warm and drowsy. For death's icy dagger lay waiting within that illusory warmth. The horse plodded on, following the tracks like a hound. Nogusta hauled him to a stop. Somewhere up ahead the killers would be camped for the night. He sniffed the air but could not pick up the scent of woodsmoke. They would have to light a fire. Otherwise they would be dead.
Nogusta was in no condition to tackle them now. Swinging away from the trail, he rode deeper into the woods, seeking a sheltered hollow or a cliff wall where he could build his own fire and rest.
The horse stumbled in deep snow but steadied itself. Nogusta almost fell from the saddle. As he righted himself, he caught a glimpse of a cabin wall through a gap in the trees. Almost entirely snow-covered, it was nearly invisible, and if the horse had not balked, he would have ridden past it. Dismounting, Nogusta led the exhausted gelding to the deserted building. The door was hanging on one leather hinge, the other having rotted away. The cabin was long and narrow beneath a sod roof, and there was a lean-to at the side, out of the wind. There Nogusta unsaddled the horse and rubbed him down. Filling a feedbag with grain, he looped it over the beast's ears, then covered his broad back with a blanket.
Leaving the horse to feed, Nogusta moved around to the front of the building and eased his way over the snow that had piled up in the doorway. The interior was dark, but he could just make out the gray stone of the hearth. As was customary in the wild, a fire had been laid, but snow had drifted down the chimney and half covered the wood. Carefully Nogusta cleaned it out, then relaid the fire. Taking his tinderbox from his pouch, he opened it and hesitated. The tinder would burn for only a few seconds. If the thin kindling wood did not catch fire immediately, it might take him hours to start a blaze with knife and flint. And he needed a fire desperately. The cold was making him tremble now. He struck the flint. The tinder burst into flame. Holding it to the thin kindling wood, he whispered a prayer to his star. Flames licked up, then surged through the dry wood. Nogusta settled back and breathed a sigh of relief, and as the fire flared, he looked around, studying the room. The cabin had been neatly built by a man who had cared. The joints were well crafted, as was the furniture: a bench table, four chairs, and a narrow bed. Shelves had been set on the north wall. They were bare now. There was only one window, the shutters closed tight. One side of the hearth was filled with logs. An old spiderweb stretched across them.
shelves and lack of personal belongings showed that the man who had built
the cabin had chosen to move on. Nogusta wondered why. The construction
of the cabin showed a neat man, a patient man, not one to be easily deterred.
Nogusta scanned the walls. There was no sign of a woman's presence there.
The builder had been a man alone. Probably a trapper. And when he had
finally left--perhaps the mountains were trapped out--he had carefully
laid a fire for the next person to find his home. A considerate man. Nogusta
felt welcome in the cabin, as if greeted by the owner. It was a good feeling.
moved warily across the killing ground, examining the
hoofprints left by riders who had come upon the scene later. Twenty, maybe thirty riders had entered the wood and left in the same direction. All around the site were the bodies of scores of birds. He found a dead fox in the bushes to the north of the wagons. There were no marks on it.
deeper into the woods, he followed the trail of dead birds and ice-scorched
grass, coming at last to what he believed to be the point of origin. It
was a perfect circle some thirty feet in diameter.
Waylander walked around it, picturing as best he could what must have happened there. An icy mist had formed in the spot, then had rolled toward the west as if driven by a fierce breeze. Everything in its path had died, including the wagoners and their families.
then, were the remains of the bodies, the discarded bones,
the shredded clothing?
toward the wagons, he stopped and examined an area where bushes had been
crushed or torn from the ground. Blood had seeped into the earth. This
was where one of the dead horses had been dragged.
Waylander found more deep imprints of taloned feet close by. One creature had killed the horse and torn it from its traces, pulling it deeper into the woods. The blood trail stopped suddenly. Waylander squatted down, his fingers tracing the indented earth. The horse had been dragged to this point and then had lost all body weight. Yet it had not been devoured here. Even if the demon had been ten feet tall, it could not have consumed an entire horse. And there were no signs that others of the creatures had gathered around to share a feast. There were no split and discarded bones, no guts or offal.
Waylander rose and reexamined the surrounding area. The tracks of taloned feet just beyond this point were all heading in one direction, toward the lake. The demons, having slaughtered the wagoners and their horses, had returned to where he now stood and had vanished. As incredible as it seemed, there was no other explanation. They had returned to wherever they had come, taking the bodies with them.
The light was beginning to fail. Waylander returned to the steeldust and stepped into the saddle.
caused the demons to materialize in the first place? Surely it could not
be chance that they had happened upon a convoy. As far as he knew, there
had been two attacks: one on Matze Chai and his men and the second on
these unfortunate wagoners. Both parties had contained large numbers of
men and horses.
Or, looked at from another viewpoint, a great deal of food.
Waylander headed the steeldust away from the woods and began the long ride around the lake. In the years he had dwelt in Kydor there had been no such attacks. Why now?
The sun was setting behind the mountains as he skirted the lake. A feeling of unease grew within him as he headed toward the distant ruins. Lifting his crossbow, he slid two bolts into place.
When the sword had begun to shine, Yu Yu Liang had been frightened. Now, an hour later, he would have given anything he possessed to be merely frightened. Clouds had obscured the moon and stars, and the only light came from the blade in his hands. From beyond the ruined walls and all around him he could hear stealthy sounds. Sweat dripped into Yu Yu's eyes as he strained to see beyond the jagged stonework. Twice he had tried to wake Kysumu, the second time shaking him roughly. It was like trying to rouse the dead.
Yu Yu's mouth was dry. He heard a scratching on the stony ground to his left and swung toward it, raising his sword high. As the light shone, he saw a dark shadow disappear behind the rocks. A low growl came from somewhere close by, the sound echoing in the night air. Yu Yu was petrified now. His hands began to tremble, and he was gripping the sword hilt so powerfully that he could hardly feel his fingers.
They are just wild dogs, he told himself. Scavenging for scraps. Nothing to fear.
Wild dogs that could make the Rajnee blade shine?
With a trembling hand he wiped sweat from his eyes and glanced back toward the horses. They were tethered within the ruin. The gray mare was shivering with terror, her eyes wide, her ears flat back against her skull. Kysumu's bay gelding was pawing the ground nervously. From there Yu Yu could just make out the line of hills and the slope he had ridden down only a few hours before. If he ran to the mare and clambered into the saddle, he could make that ride again and be clear of the ruins within moments.
The thought was like cool water to a man dying of thirst.
He flicked a glance to the seated Kysumu. His face, as ever, was calm. Yu Yu swore loudly, feeling his anger rise. "Only an idiot goes seeking demons," he said, his voice sounding shrill.
High above him the clouds parted briefly, and moonlight bathed the ghostly city of Kuan Hador. In that sudden light Yu Yu saw several dark shapes scatter to hide among the rocks. As he tried to focus on them, the clouds gathered once more. Yu Yu licked his lips and backed across the ruin to stand alongside Kysumu.
"Wake up!" he shouted, nudging the man with his foot.
The moon shone once more. Again the dark shapes scattered. But they were closer now. Yu Yu rubbed his sweating palms on the sides of his leggings and took up his sword once more, swinging it left and right to loosen the muscles of his shoulders. "I am Yu Yu Liang!" he shouted. "I am a great swordsman, and I fear nothing!"
"I can taste your fear," came a sibilant voice.
Yu Yu leapt backward, catching his leg on the low wall and falling over it. He scrambled to his feet.
At that moment a huge black form came hurtling toward him, its great jaws open, long fangs snapping for his face. Yu Yu swung the sword. It slashed into the beast's neck, slicing through flesh and bone and exiting in a bloody spray. The creature's dead body cannoned into him, hurling him from his feet. Yu Yu hit the ground hard, rolled to his knees, then surged to his feet. Smoke began to ooze from the carcass alongside him, and a terrible stench filled the air.
Five more of the beasts came padding toward the ruin, clambering over the broken stones and forming a circle around him. Yu Yu saw that they were hounds, but of a kind he had never seen before. Their shoulders were bunched with muscle, their heads huge. Their eyes were on him, and he sensed a feral intelligence in their baleful gaze.
To his left the gray mare suddenly reared, dragged her reins loose of the rock, and leapt over the wall. The bay gelding followed her lead, and the two horses galloped away toward the hills. The huge hounds ignored the horses.
The voice came again, and he realized it was somehow speaking inside his head. "Your order has fallen a long way since the Great Battle. My brothers will be pleased to hear of your decline. The mighty Riaj-nor, who once were lions, are now frightened monkeys with bright swords."
"You show yourself," said Yu Yu, "and this monkey will cut your poxy head from your poxy shoulders."
"You cannot see me? Better and better."
"No, but I can see you, creature of darkness," came the voice of Kysumu. The little Rajnee stepped up alongside Yu Yu. "Cloaked in shadow, you stand just out of harm's way."
Yu Yu glanced at Kysumu and saw that he was staring toward the eastern wall. Yu Yu squinted, trying to make out a figure there, but he could see nothing.
The demon hounds began to move. Kysumu had still not drawn his sword.
"I see there are still lions in this world. But lions can also die."
The hounds rushed in. Kysumu's blade flashed left and right. Two of the beasts fell, writhing on the stones. A third struck Yu Yu, fangs closing on his shoulder. With a cry of pain Yu Yu rammed his sword deep into the beast's belly. In its agony the hound opened its jaws, letting out a ferocious howl. Yu Yu tore the blade clear and brought it down on the hound's skull. The sword tore through bone and wedged itself there. Desperately Yu Yu tried to haul it clear. The last two beasts rushed at him. Kysumu's sword sliced through the neck of the first, but the second leapt for Yu Yu's throat.
In that instant a black bolt materialized in the creature's skull, a second lancing through its neck. The hound fell at Yu Yu's feet. Freeing his sword, Yu Yu swung around to see the Gray Man upon his steeldust gelding, a small crossbow in his hand.
"Time to go," the Gray Man said softly, pointing toward the east.
A thick mist was moving across the ancient city, a wall of fog slowly rolling toward them. The Gray Man swung the gelding and galloped away. Yu Yu and Kysumu followed him. The pain in Yu Yu's shoulder was intense now, and he could feel blood flowing down his left arm. Even so he ran swiftly.
Far ahead he saw the Gray Man still riding away. "A pox on you, bastard!" he shouted.
Glancing back, he saw that the wall of mist was closer, moving faster than he could run. Kysumu also glanced back. Yu Yu staggered and almost fell. Kysumu dropped back to take his arm. "Just a little farther," said Kysumu.
"We ... can't ... outrun it."
Kysumu said nothing, and the two men moved on in the darkness. Yu Yu heard hoofbeats and looked up to see the Gray Man riding back toward them, leading the gray mare and the bay gelding. Kysumu helped Yu Yu into the saddle, then ran to his own mount.
The mist was very close now, and Yu Yu could hear bestial sounds emanating from it.
The gray mare needed no urging and took off at speed, Yu Yu clinging to the saddle pommel. She was panting heavily by the time they reached the slope, but panic gave her greater strength and she fought her way up the steep incline.
A little ahead, the Gray Man swung the steeldust, gazing back down toward the plain.
was swirling at the foot of the slope but not advancing. Yu Yu swayed
in the saddle. He felt Kysumu's hand upon his arm and then passed into