Back | Next

Chapter Four

The roots of meaning and memory,
Are a deep, dark tangle,
Which holds love and hate,
In eternal, unbreakable bonds.

—Avalti, Augronac’s Lament

In the sharp, grey cold of dawn, Ikarno Mazaret sat on a wide rock on a snowy hillside overlooking the former Duchy of Patrein, thinking of the two occasions on which he had slain the Warlord Azurech.

Or at least of the blows he had struck the man, blows that would have killed any ordinary warrior. The first time had been in the burnt-out ruins of Tobrosa during a rainstorm, hunting Azurech and his guards through black, wet streets. Catching him unawares and alone, Mazaret had beat aside his sword and dealt him a thrust of such fury and might that his blade had punched through the man’s mailed shirt near the heart and impaled him from front to back. Mazaret remembered how he wrenched his dripping sword free, and how Azurech had swayed then retreated but a single step before collapsing to the ground, apparently dead. With shouts coming near through the hissing rain, Mazaret had taken to his heels, seeking concealment in a wrecked taphouse from where he looked back.

And stifled a curse when he saw Azurech’s form stir and sit upright, then shout for his men.

The second time was by sunset at the King’s Gate Pass, when Mazaret and his knights were returning to Besh-Darok. They had just cleared the pass when the Warlord’s warriors fell upon them from either side. Battle was furiously joined and Mazaret was forcing his way through the press of men and horse, slashing to left and right with his battleaxe, when he found himself confronting Azurech himself.

Clad in ornate black armour and a snarling wolf’s-head helm, the Warlord blocked Mazaret’s first blow with a night black shield from which a circle of curved spikes protruded. Then he swung a serrated broadsword which Mazaret only just managed to parry before spurring his horse up against Azurech’s mount. He pushed his own shield into Azurech’s face, at the same moment bringing his axe down on the man’s lightly armoured thigh. His hold on the axe was white-fist tight and the blade edge bit through mailed leather and flesh, jarring as it clove the bone. The Warlord’s horse screamed as its flank took a cut, and reared away from Mazaret but not before he saw what he had done. Azurech’s leg was hanging by scraps of flesh and leather, with blood gouting forth, a blood that was black.

The ambushers had broken off the attack, retreating back through the Kings Gate Pass to the wastes of central Khatris. Mazaret had conducted a search of the bodies afterwards but Azurech’s was not among them. It had seemed that the Warlord could only have ridden off to die, but three weeks ago word came that he had returned to Khatris with the avowed intention of dragging Mazaret all the way to Rauthaz in chains. In response Mazaret sent out more spies and consulted with Bardow but although the Archmage was able to see further with the Crystal Eye, the Shadowkings and the more powerful of their servants remained hidden. However, it transpired that a band of slavers were abducting refugees from the ruined citadel of Alvergost and selling them on to Azurech. Mazaret listened closely and laid his plans accordingly.

From where he sat on that bleak hillside he had a panoramic view of the white emptiness of southern Khatris. To the south, the deserted city of Tobrosa - its towers now blackened and gutted hollows - was just visible as a dark blotch on the horizon while to the east the Rukang Mountains presented an ashen barrier of unscaleable peaks and ridges. The surrounding plains looked near-featureless beneath the recent snowfall; this had once been rich farm land but the whiteness hid a multitude of ravages and ruins.

Mazaret’s knights were encamped at the foot of the hill, in a small gully behind a copse of leafless, skeletal trees, but his gaze was fixed on the slight figure standing by a drystone pen down and off to his left. Terzis Kommyn had incurred Bardow’s anger by volunteering to accompany Mazaret on his forays, but she had proven her worth so convincingly that the Archmage had relented. Now, she was using her talents to scry movements in the distance and the unseen aspects of the great arena they would soon enter.

A dark dot in the grey sky slowly until it was seen to be a small bird winging madly towards the hillside. At the end of its flight it swooped down to alight perfectly on Terzis' upraised hands. She drew it close and bent her head, remaining thus for several moments before tossing it into the air where it darted off into the east. Wiping her hands on her woollen cloak, Terzis then began climbing towards Mazaret.

“So,” he said. “Where is he?”

The female mage gave a half-smile as she came and sat beside him on the wide rock. “I know what route Azurech is following, but I did not see him – my little spy would not go anywhere near his procession. But by my reckoning, he should cross the Westerly Way late in the afternoon, perhaps an hour before sunset.”

“And our allies?”

“Domas and his men left their hideaway an hour ago, “ she said. “They should reach the meeting place by mid-morning.”

Mazaret had been wary on receiving Domas' offer of alliance over a fortnight ago; Keren’s account of the man’s deeds as a mercenary in Alvergost were still fresh in his mind. In his missive, Domas had claimed that an argument had led to a fight in which the mercenary captain and his main supporters were slain. After that, the mercenary company elected Domas their leader and took on the role of protecting the refugees from the Red Priests and the slavers who appeared to be working together. For a short time they had been successful, driving off several raids and protecting a train of supply wagons sent secretly by farmers in the eastern dales. Then, about a month ago, the slavers had launched an attack on Alvergost, supported by skilled, well-armed troops that Domas had never seen before. So ferocious was the attack that Domas and his men abandoned their camp and fled east into the dark ravines of the Rukang Mountains. It was soon after this that Domas made his offer, which Mazaret had accepted only after a face-to-face encounter with the man on a hilltop near the King’s Gate.

Mazaret stood and stretched, surveying the land before them and the sky above, and breathing in the cold air.

“Time we were leaving,” he said. “It would not do for the knights of Besh-Darok to be tardy in such an undertaking.”

Together they descended the snow-clad hillside, crunching through clumps of frost-laden grass and stepping carefully across iced-over streamlets. As they approached the encampment, Mazaret beckoned over his Captain of the March and ordered the camp struck. A short time later everyone was on their mounts and when the handlers strapped the last baggage to its pack horse, Mazaret led the column at a steady trot up from the gully and out from behind the cover of the copse. As they rode out into the wintry plain, Mazaret tugged off one of his leather gauntlets then felt beneath his tied cloak and inside his jerkin. He found the flat, palm-sized square of ivory which he kept there and brought it out. It was a single leaf from what would have been a small bound book, and on it was inscribed –

‘Oft times in dreams, my love,

It seems that you lie beside me.

Yet with the waking day,

My soul’s desire becomes but a dream,

And it seems the day will never end.’

He had found the ivory leaf two months ago, in the mud near a razed farmhouse east of Tobrosa, and since then reading it once a day had become a private ritual, his own silent keening.

“Suviel,” he whispered as he slipped the leaf back into its inner pocket, then, with a raised hand and a cavalryman’s cry, urged the column into a swift canter across the snows.

The meeting place was the great Rootpower temple at the market crossroads town of Nimas. Its builders had burrowed deep into the side of a rocky outcrop overlooking the town, using that sheer mass of stone to help support soaring pillars, high walls and an immense arched roof. But fire had burnt out the temple’s heart, pulled in its roof and shattered the walls, leaving only the part that was hewn from the rock. Since the pillage of Khatris, and the slaughter of the chieftains at the Battle of Besh-Darok, most of the population had fled and now Nimas was utterly abandoned, its sad vacant houses looking dark and choked with snow and ice.

From doors and windows some of Domas' men regarded the knights approach along the main street. Mazaret saw that they had quartered their mounts in the shell of a granary near the cross. Those of the mounts that he caught sight of were brown, shaggy ponies but there was also a mixture of sway-backed mares and underfed plough horses. More men gathered to watch, darkly ragged figures, all with the hard-bitten look that spoke of many battles. In all, Mazaret reckoned they numbered little more than two score.

At the cross Domas himself emerged from a half-demolished inn. Mazaret dismounted and the two leaders clasped hands in the warriors' grip.

“Well met, lord of Besh-Darok,” Domas said. He was a rangy man, almost as tall as Mazaret, with black hair and full beard and pale eyes which gave the newcomers a quick appraisal. “Your knights are finely attired and well-armed, my lord. I look forward to seeing them fight.”

“Have no doubts, Domas. My men will not be found wanting.”

Mazaret nodded to his Captain of the March, who gave the order to dismount, then passed his horse’s reins to one of the handlers before walking with Domas up towards the temple.

“My mage tells me that Azurech will reach the Westerly Way by late afternoon,” Mazaret said.

“Sooner,” said Domas. “The dog has changed his course in the last hour, turning onto the Sunplain Road which take him close to Prekine.” Domas spat on the ground. “Two hundred captives he has in those wagons, more than half of them children.”

At this, Mazaret felt a cold anger. He had heard many rumours and tales about what the Acolytes had done to children in Trevada before the Daemonkind Orgraaleshenoth clashed with them in the High Basilica. Now it appeared that they had resumed their vile atrocities.

“This is ill news,” he said. “Can we catch them?”

“It is possible,” Domas said, beckoning a short, hooded figure over to join them. “This is Qael – he is one of my eyes in the wilderness, and has just returned from tracking Azurech’s caravan. Qael, tell the Lord Regent of our enemy’s strength.”

The spy was a short, wiry man swathed in a grubby brown cloak. From with a tattered cowl birdlike features smiled and glittering eyes regarded Mazaret for a moment before he spoke. “Of the Gidreg slavers there are no more than thirty, half ahorse, half with the wagons. There are also two dozen riders like the ones that fell upon us at Alvergost, each one with a little lamp hanging from his saddle. But those following Deathless number more than six score, all mounted and well armed. A pair of those Mogaun shamen also ride with him.”

Mazaret frowned. “Deathless?”

“We have heard of your own encounters with the dog, so one of my captains coined that for him,” Domas said. “Then we found out from an escape captive that he has the same nickname among his own men.” The former mercenary sent Qael off with a few murmured words, then gave Mazaret a wry grin. “So now the odds are laid bare – daunting, are they not?”

There was a challenge in his words, and the hint of a taunt, and Mazaret gave him a sidelong glance as they strode between tumbledown buildings.

“And I say again – can we still catch them?”

“They may have altered their route, but they’re escorting slow wagons and have to keep to the road.” He paused by a fallen piece of masonry and quickly sketched lines on its flat, frosted surface. “There is the Tobrosa Road, which we thought Deathless was going to take, and here is the Sunplain Road. There is one place along it which is perfect for an ambush, a long shallow gully between rocky slopes impassable to wagons…”

“Which we attack from either end after they enter it,” Mazaret said.

“Just so. The night’s cold will be rising by then so we may be lucky enough to have the falling snow to mask our approach. I will take my men and follow them up the Sunplain Road, while you and your knights ride round to come at them from the north. Qael will be your guide, if that is agreeable.”

“It is a simple strategy, and surprise should help even the odds,” Mazaret said. “But what are your thoughts on those shamen?”

Domas shrugged. “How good is this mage of yours?”

Mazaret gave him a sharp look. “Every one of us would trust Terzis with his life. I shall tell who we face – she will know what is required.”

They were almost at the Rootpower temple, ascending wide shallow steps that were once shaded by trees now reduced to hacked and charred trunks. Mazaret’s knights had gathered at the foot of the slope with their mounts, who were enjoying a well-earned feed and watering.

“Time is against us, my lord,” said Domas. “We should depart as soon as possible. In the meantime I thought you would like to visit the temple’s sanctoral.”

They had reached the head of the steps, from where a broad path led to the temple’s once-massive doors. But the doors were long gone and a knee-high line of broken stone was all that remained of the mighty east-facing wall. The tiled expanse of the temple floor was open to the sky and wet with foot-stamped slush. Snow lay atop the shattered stumps of pillars and, at the west wall, the wide chalern dais, the place of holy discourse. Mazaret knew that there would be steps leading down into the sanctoral, a deep, long recess in the top of the chalern. There would be wall-carvings, floor tiles covered in symbolic patterns, and three altars near the west wall where a living tree should be growing up from the hidden earth, up the wall and out of the carefully constructed roof.

But from where he stood he could see the black charring which ran all the way up the wall like a scar, and knew that the sanctoral was nothing but a shell. He turned to Domas.

“Why did you think I would want to come here?”

Domas was taken aback. “But your knights are of the Fathertree order – ”

“And the Fathertree and its spirit died,” Mazaret said bluntly. “And the Rootpower too was destroyed. There is nothing to pray to here, Domas, nothing to honour or contemplate. The mysteries are dead and there is no hope of intercession.”

Domas surprise had given way to resentment. “Yet you have not changed the order’s name, my lord.”

“Most of the knights do not share my views, and that I must respect. But there is nothing for me in this place – I will not pay homage to the memory of what was.” Mazaret turned to retrace his path. “Send your man Qael to me, Domas. We shall be ready to leave soon.”

But as he descended the steps, his thoughts were in a turmoil of self-reproach. Liar! Hypocrite! What else is that ivory book leaf but a worship of what is dead?

Suviel was dead, and the Fathertree was dead, while a host of abominations lived on. Like Deathless Azurech.

Deathless, he thought grimly. I shall turn that name into a black jest.

A short time later Mazaret was in the saddle once more, leading his knights past the temple, the scout, Qael, to his left, riding one of the shaggy-maned hill ponies. Terzis rode on his right, her tense features betraying an inner trepidation. When he had outlined the enemy’s strength and the presence of two shamen, she went pale. Now, as he observed her with a sidelong glance, Mazaret’s own doubts began to gnaw at him.

Then he grew angry. Why burden himself with ghostly what-ifs? Terzis had promised that she would devise a way counter the shamen, and he trusted that promise.

For the next two hours they rode swiftly across the low, rolling whiteness of central Khatris, guided by Qael. On horseback the breezing icy air nipped at exposed skin and most of the knights fixed flaps of their cloaks across their faces below the eyes. But still the aching cold seeped into every extremity.

Through a world of white fields, skeletal woods and ice-capped ponds they rode with wary purpose. Qael was careful to avoid towns and villages, and even roadside guard posts, no matter how deserted they seemed. Occasionally they would draw near low hills, or a wooded dale, and the hooded scout would dart on ahead to spy out the land, then return to show the way. They were starting along a long and gentle hogback ridge when Mazaret saw darker clouds in the middle distance and snowfall advancing like a wide grey wall across the plains towards them.

“Our veil,” said the scout Qael with a feral smile. “We shall be the unseen.”

“Where is the gully?” Mazaret said, voice raised above the drumming of the hooves.

Qael grinned. “Beyond it.”

Not long after, the first white motes came fluttering down. Moments later the snowfall proper swept over them on a rising wind that drove large icy flakes into their faces as they rode. At first Mazaret was pleased, almost exhilarated at the snow’s arrival but then the blasting chill of it increased. The visible distance was growing steadily shorter and he realised that their ability to fight on horseback would become severely hampered.

At the far end of the ridge the trail dipped into a long depression in the terrain which ended with a path that rose and curved along the flank of a steep hill. Qael brought them to an abrupt halt here. Mazaret felt a stab of foreboding at the confusion in the man’s face.

“There should be scouts here to greet us and say when the enemy will arrive,” Qael said.

“Did Domas send them ahead from Nimas to observe,” Mazaret said, “or was he going to wait till he was in position?”

Qael was sombre. “He intended to wait.”

“Then he has been waylaid, or has suffered some other misfortune. We may have to follow the route back – ”

Then sounds came to them through the rushing snow, cries and the clash of weapons. Qael immediately leaped from his horse and dashed up the hill, falling to hand and knees to crawl the last yard or two. Mazaret was close behind and heard the man curse before reaching his side.

“Poor fool,” Qael muttered.

Mazaret was filled with dread at what he saw. From the dozens of corpses, human and horse, that lay scattered across the gully it appeared that the enemy had caught the advance party in the open. After a bloody battle only two of Domas' men were still alive, one prone and bleeding on the ground while the other stood over him with a quarterstaff and weakening visibly as he held off his terrible assailants.

Four figures surrounded him, and not one among the living. Gore dripped from the cloven head of one, entrails from the midriff of another, while the others had been horribly hacked. All could stand and swing a weapon, and all moved to the will of the two shamen who watched from their horses a few yards away.

“I have seen the dead walk and kill before now,” Qael said through gritted teeth. “We must act or those men shall surely die.”

“But look at all those other bodies,” said Terzis, who had joined them. “If we attack, we would be facing more than just four.”

“We have to get in close enough to kill those shamen,” Mazaret growled. The hand-to– hand fight with the waking dead in Oumetra was still fresh in his memory. “Yet we must conceal the move, or fight an army of corpses.” He looked at Terzis. “Could you create the illusion of, say, a dozen men on horseback with myself in the lead?”

“Yes, my lord, I can.”

“Can you maintain four such illusions at the same time?”

Her eyes widened. “My lord, I’m… not sure – ”

Mazaret frowned. “And if I order you to do so?”

The lady mage was still a moment, then nodded sharply. “By your command, my lord.”

“Good,” Mazaret said. “Then this is what we’ll do…”

Minutes later, Mazaret and twelve of his knights were galloping along behind the hill to a notch which led into the north of the gully. At the gap they slowed to a halt at a point he was sure was visible from the crest of the hill. A moment passed, then an image of Mazaret on his horse began to appear, wavering as if seen through water. Then details grew sharp, and he was startled at the sight of a grey-haired man past middle-age, garbed in mailed armour and heavy furs, his face lined and weathered, his pale eyes both intense and sorrowful.

Is this really how I am? he wondered. Or is this how Terzis sees me?

The rest of his knights were also present in mirror image, patiently waiting as a second group quivered out of nothing and grew solid, then a third and a fourth. Mazaret could hear his men muttering fearfully among themselves and felt a ripple of primitive dread when all his likenesses looked directly at him. Reaching for his blade, he had to grip it hard and tight to quell the trembling that threatened to unman him. Then he raised his sword aloft before lowering it to point at the enemy.

“The Tree and the Crown!” he cried and spurred his horse into a plunging gallop.

Following him, his men took up the battlecry. Then two of the ghostly bands moved to overtake them, led by mirage Mazaret’s who gestured with their blades and bellowed war shouts in perfect, silent mimicry. A freezing blast of wind tore at their cloaks as they came out from the lee, and dense swirls of snow scoured them with icy claws. The deep moan of the storm seemed to fill the gully like a song and in the eerie madness of the moment he imagined that his horse was his fear, which he was riding into the razored heart of peril.

A shriek went up from the snow-blurred shamen on their horses as they caught sight of the charge. The lone fighter still held off the walking dead, but he was staggering now. Then there was a second figure at his side, slashing and kicking to hold back the abominable attackers – it was Qael.

Up ahead Mazaret saw a few carcasses stir beneath their mantles of snow, but they slumped back into stillness when the shamen realised what they were facing. As the leading group of mirages were dispelled, another rode past Mazaret to his left while yet another appeared on his right. Amid their shielding phalanx of illusions Mazaret and his men held to their grim course. They were close enough now to see the shaman’s faces, the bones in their tangled hair, their ritual scars, their hungry malice. And beyond them, way along the gully, Mazaret could just make out figures and shapes approaching through the blurring snowfall…

Then suddenly there were no ghostly images between himself and the nearest shaman. Across the rapidly diminishing yards the Mogaun looked into Mazaret’s eyes and saw the promise of doom, but before he could do more than began the first mouthings of a cantrip Mazaret’s hurtling blade took his head off with a single blow.

As the lifeless body toppled from its saddle, Mazaret let out a shout of triumph and reined his horse round in search of the other shaman. The four corpse warriors were sinking down into the snow, and beyond them he saw the remaining Mogaun riding madly up the north slope of the gully. Then movement and noise surged into his awareness as the dim shapes he had seen before were finally upon him, riders armed with spears and poleaxes, wagons full of weeping children and adults, and swordsmen and bowmen on foot running and stumbling as they tried to keep up. Mazaret’s knights fought to control their mounts amid the pandemonium while Mazaret watched for any sign of Domas himself.

“My lord…”

He turned at the shout to see Qael tending to several of the arriving wounded and urging them to stay on the wagons.

“What’s happening?” Mazaret said.

The scout wiped blood from his cheek and looked up. “Domas and his men were discovered and had to attack the caravan,” he said. “He is fighting a rearguard action with the bulk of his men, trying to give time for the wagons to escape….wait, that’s them now…” He began helping and prodding his charges back into the nearest wagon. “Go – go now!”

Riders were emerging from the veiled distance, less than a dozen in addition to a couple of riderless steeds. Mazaret bellowed a rallying call to the nearest of his serjeants then turned to signal Kance who he knew was waiting up on the crest of the hill. When he gave the field gesture for a flank attack, the lone figure on the hill waved once then vanished. When Mazaret looked back the survivors of Domas' warband were arriving, bloody, battered and angry. Domas himself was helmless with a raw graze down one side of his face and a wound on his shield hand. He allowed one of his men to tie a bandage before shaking him off and turning his dark and bitter gaze on Mazaret.

“Where are your fine knights now, my lord?”

“Waiting and ready, good ser.” With a tilt of the head he indicated the gully wall to their left, and Domas nodded slowly.

Snow rushed all about them, growing heavier by the minute. As the wagons rumbled off to the rear, the all-too-few riders and warriors formed a thin line across the gully. Down the far end, at the edge of visibility, a dark mass of horsemen was approaching at an almost leisurely canter.

“Deathless has a great appetite,” Domas said. “And he hungers yet.”

“Then let us stick in his craw,” Mazaret said, turning to shout: “Ready spears and bows if you have them...wait for my order…”

He glanced along the line. Faces were grim and staring or exhausted and beyond fear, but there was no give in them as Azurech’s troops came onwards at the gallop. Snow sprayed from beneath hammering hooves, white breath gushed from horse nostrils and harness clinked and jingled.

“Wait…” he said.

Azurech’s riders looked well-armoured, with most wearing concealing helms and small bannerets that fluttered from shoulders and backs.

“Wait….and – LOOSE!”

A wave of spears and arrows leaped towards their targets. Some missed entirely, others rebounded from shields and body armour, a few struck riders who cried out and fell, or horses which shrieked and lunged to the side. But the rest never paused. They came straight on. Mazaret stared at the dark and thundering wall of enemies for a moment, then roared the charge and spurred his mount forward.

The two forces met with a din of battlecries and clashing metal. Amid the barbed and armoured tumult, two horsemen, one with a sword, the other with a spear, rode towards Mazaret. He deflected the spearpoint with his shield and landed a well-aimed boot on the man’s hip, sending him spinning from his saddle. At the same time he leaned away from the swordsman’s slashing blade, slipped past and found himself facing another enemy who he outfought and despatched.

Then the high voice of horn sounded above the battle’s raw clangour, and Mazaret glanced round to Captain Kance leading the rest of his men down the side of the gully. The galloping wedge of knights held their formation even as they struck the flank of Azurech’s column, splitting it in two. Divided and caught, the enemy’s ranks dissolved into uncoordinated knots and pairs yet still fought on resolutely.

There was another hornblast and a long line of mounted knights came into view on the opposite rise, while half a dozen charged in from behind the original line. At this, Azurech’s men broke and an attempt to retreat back along the gully turned into a chaotic rout. Unnoticed, the knights up on the rise faded away.

Terzis, Mazaret thought with a grim smile.

The victors were pursuing and riding down the vanquished, yet a few still managed to escape. Blood drenched the cold ground and the bodies of men and horses littered the gully, growing pale beneath the falling snow. Those mortally wounded were quickly despatched while surrendered prisoners were being disarmed and forced to leave on foot. Now dismounted, Mazaret strode over to where some score of his and Domas' men stood gathered around something. A few saw him approach, their faces anxious as they stepped aside to let him through to stand over the enemy he had already beaten twice.

Azurech was a tall, lantern-jawed man but now he measured his length on the ground, propped against the neck of a dead horse. His wounds were ghastly – one leg was shattered and lay bent in implausible places with bone shards visible; one arm was handless while the other was missing entirely from the shoulder.

Yet still he lived. Black blood soaked his armour and the ground below and around him but the wounds seemed to have staunched themselves. And still he lived and breathed. Within the black iron frame of his helm his face was a waxy white mask, its hollows and wrinkles tinged with a grey-pink hue. Red-rimmed eyes full of burning vitality looked up at Mazaret and the thin-lipped mouth smiled.

“Your thoughts write themselves in the pages of your eyes, my lord Regent,” said Azurech in a voice unexpectedly deep and articulate. “Thoughts like ‘How can this be?’, and ‘Can he be killed?’, and even ‘Should I take him back for judgement?’”

“Only the third part of your maunderings has any bearing on my purpose,” Mazaret said. “You will return with us and answer for your foul acts.”

Azurech gave him an amused look through half-closed eyes. “Hmm, Besh-Darok – a sizeable city by all accounts. Were you to take me there, you might have cause to wish you had done otherwise.”

In a single, swift movement Mazaret unsheathed his sword and levelled it at the Warlord’s throat.

“Or I could end your life here,” he said. “One thrust, and no more Deathless.”

There were nodding heads and murmurs of approval from the gathered soldiers. Mazaret noticed Domas watching from the side, agreeing with the rest.

Azurech just sneered.

“My master is the great Shadowking Byrnak, fool, and he has promised me life unending. You have no conception of the powers that you face. Slay me and my master will call my spirit back from the feeble bonds of the Earthmother’s realm and attire me in new flesh. Then we shall resume our joust, you and I.”

The onlookers muttered fearfully and made warding gestures, but now it was Mazaret’s turn to smile.

“There are other prisons, “ he said. “The mine and well-dungeons of Roharka, for example – one of those might suit you, in that broken body of yours.”

Azurech’s gaze grew hard with hate. “There are ways and ways. I may have no talent for sorcery, but my master’s will can reach out to touch the deepest pit and the highest peak. I shall not remain captive for long.”

“How sad,” Mazaret said to the gathered men. “Witless as well as deathless. Have one of the wagons brought so that we might transport our luckless guest – ”

A sound penetrated the muffling moan of the snowstorm, a brazen cry that shivered down from the sky. Fearful eyes peered into the blurred distance. Mazaret tightened his grip on his sword and was about to ask for Terzis when the sound came again, louder and closer and quickly followed by an answering cry from another quarter. Both climbed the scale into tearing shrieks that grew ever nearer…

“Deliverance,” murmured Azurech, just as a great winged form emerged from the grey veils of the snowstorm. Spines ridged its back, whiplike tendrils flailed from its wingtips and sharp cusps jutted from the joints of its lower legs and the knuckles of its clawed forearms. The narrow, armoured head possessed wide jaws filled with serrated teeth and a slender black tongue, but below it, in the upper chest between the clutching claws, was a second mouth, its thin lips gaping to reveal rows of incurving fangs.

“Spears and bows!” Mazaret roared, but most of the men broke and ran in the face of the screaming, onrushing horror. The remaining few were readying their weapons when someone behind Mazaret yelled in fright….and something struck the back of his head, hurling him to the ground. There was a numb pain in the back of his head and a dizzy nausea as he struggled to regain his feet. Then he realised that someone was dragging him away, trying to get him to stand. As he did, he caught sight of a second monster, a long serpentine shape of armoured segments with two pairs of wings keeping it aloft.

Nighthunters, he thought hazily. But how

Then, with faster wingbeats, it began to rise into the air, followed by the double-jawed one which was carrying a limp form in its foreclaws.


“Flee, Lord Commander…” came that mocking voice. “Take your rabble and flee back to your hovel city, and to your bride…”

Pain throbbed in Mazaret's head, and a sudden fury took him.

“To the horses!” he cried, lurching upright. “We...hunt…”

But his legs shook and he would have fallen had other hands not grabbed him in time.

“My lord, you’re badly wounded,” said Captain Kance, his face as blurred as the sound of his voice. Next to him was Terzis and Domas, and Mazaret was about to speak when pain stabbed in his head.

“Half your scalp is flayed,” Terzis said. “You must rest...that I can heal you….”

Yes, you are right, he wanted to say but his eyes felt like caves that he was falling backwards into, caves that swallowed him in dark oblivion.

Back | Next